What do SSigDOGs do?
Each SSigDOG must be specially trained to meet the unique needs of its user. But there are certain areas of difficulty that are common to many people with autism and related disorders. In the case of a young child or a dependent older person, a dog can alert caregivers to the occurrence of problems so the caregivers can intervene. In the case of a more independent person, a dog can help the person identify which features of a confusing environment need to be attended to. These are some common problems, and some examples of possible SSigDOG tasks:
Modulation of sensory and motor behavior
Autistic people sometimes have trouble understanding sensory input. The difficulty may be constant (the person is "functionally" deaf or blind) or intermittent (the person experiences auditory or visual "tune-outs"). It may be predictable (the person becomes unresponsive to sensory input when subjected to some identifiable stress factor such as fatigue, intense sensory stimulation, or confusion) or unpredictable (the person's responses change from normal to abnormal or nonexistent with no warning).
Example #1: A child does not respond consistently to his name. His parents want him to be able to play outside, but they are concerned because he does not answer when they call him. A SSigDOG can be trained to accompany the child when he goes out to play. When the parents want to locate the child, they can call a command to the dog. The dog will then run to the parents and lead them back to the child.
Example #2: A student knows the way to walk to school and has adequate judgment to determine when it is safe to cross streets. But she has unpredictable visual "tune-outs" during which she may not notice that she has reached a curb, or that there is an obstacle in her path, or that she is on a collision course with a bicyclist. A SSigDOG can be trained to stop at all street corners, lead her around obstacles, and pull her out of the path of moving objects. The dog's behavior will refocus the student's attention so that she can make appropriate decisions about how to respond.Autistic people may have stereotyped, repetitive movements and other behaviors that interfere with social acceptance. People with some degree of social awareness and motor control are likely to voluntarily self-suppress such behaviors in public, but the behaviors may still occur when the person is distracted or stressed. In other people behaviors may be not only odd but self-injurious (such as head-banging or hand-biting), disruptive (such as tantrums), or so socially unacceptable as to provoke hostility from neighbors and possibly the police (such as approaching strangers inappropriately, or obsessively collecting objects without regard for whether they belong to someone else).
Example #3: A child hits herself in the face when she is frustrated or upset. Behavioral treatment has reduced this behavior but has not completely eliminated it. The child also is fascinated by shiny objects. When she sees someone wearing shiny jewelry, she rushes over and tries to grab the jewelry. A SSigDOG can be trained to alert the child's caregiver, either by barking or by leading the caregiver to the child, whenever the child begins to display these behaviors.
Example #4: An adult wishes to be accepted at social events and to make friends in the community. His social skills are generally adequate, but sometimes he still rocks and hand-flaps. A SSigDOG can be trained to give some unobtrusive signal, such as a discreet nudge, whenever these behaviors occur. This will make the person aware of the behaviors so that he can decide whether he wishes to suppress them.
Orientation to the physical environment
Autistic people often seem to be unaware of their environment or uncomprehending of dangers in the environment. This can be dangerous for both dependent and independent people. Small children may wander far from home, run into streets, or climb on dangerous machinery. Adults without independent navigation skills may walk away from school or work, get lost, and be unable to communicate well enough to ask for help. Independently-navigating people may lose track of where they are even in familiar surroundings, or may become confused and disoriented in unfamiliar places.
Example #5: A child keeps going into a neighboring family's yard and climbing around or into the swimming pool. He has been discovered in the pool several times, and once he fell into it when it was empty and broke his arm. His parents have put up a high fence around their own yard, but the child climbs over the fence. He has also mastered complicated door and window locks, and has been found in the neighbors' yard at times when his family thought he was safely indoors. His parents worry that a momentary lapse of vigilance may lead to their child's drowning. A SSigDOG can be trained to alert a parent whenever the child begins climbing the fence, unlocking a window or a door, or approaching the pool.
Example #6: A nonverbal teenager lives in a group home. He frequently wanders away from the home, despite all the staff's efforts to keep track of him. The group home is in a city neighborhood near several busy streets. The boy has not learned to cross streets safely. The staff at the group home have decided that if he cannot be stopped from wandering, he will have to be removed from the group home and placed in a more restrictive environment. A SSigDOG can be taught the boundaries of the group home's grounds, and trained to alert staff if the boy leaves the grounds unaccompanied by a staff member.
Example #7: A high school graduate lives in her own apartment and walks or rides a bicycle to work. Sometimes she forgets a turn and goes several blocks out of her way, and then she becomes confused and cannot figure out where she is. If she makes a slight detour, or changes her usual route in order to run an errand, she gets lost. Usually she stops at a nearby grocery store on her way home from work. If she wants to go to the grocery store from home, she does not know how to get there unless she goes to her workplace first. If she goes to the store on a weekend when the traffic sounds are different, she has trouble finding her way home even following the same route she uses on weekdays. A SSigDOG can be trained to lead her to specified destinations, such as home, school, or store, in response to a single command.
Orientation to the social environment
Autistic people may have trouble with very basic social functions, including recognizing people, recognizing emotions, recognizing attempts to communicate, and initiating interactions. These problems often lead others to conclude that an autistic person is not interested in other people and does not wish to interact. An autistic person's unusual appearance and mannerisms may also make others hesitant to include the autistic person in activities.
Example #8: An elementary school student attends public school but has no friends in her class. Other children ignore her or tease her. She does not know how to approach peers even though she would like to play with them. The mere presence of a SSigDOG can attract positive attention and facilitate positive interactions with peers. The dog can also be trained to play with the child in such a way that other children are encouraged to join in. For instance, if the dog is playing Frisbee with the child, another child might be standing nearby watching. The autistic child is not likely to recognize this potential opening for interaction, but the dog can include the second child by bringing the Frisbee to him to throw.
Example #9: An office worker is cheerful and friendly with co-workers while in the office, but does not recognize them when he sees them outside the office. He also has trouble recognizing the sound of his name when someone calls to him in a noisy place, and recognizing attention-getting signals when someone approaches him in a crowded place. When co-workers see him in the community they may greet him, wave to him, or try to start conversations with him. They do not understand why he ignores them or acts as if he doesn't know them. They conclude that he is rude and unfriendly. After a while they stop trying to interact with him at work as well as in other places. A SSigDOG can be trained to alert the man to the presence of familiar people, to people calling his name, and to people trying to get his attention.
Example #10: A college graduate lives independently and is gainfully employed, but his social naivete and "spacey" manner make him a frequent target for exploitation. He has had wallets, cameras, knapsacks, and other belongings stolen because he put them down and was too easily distracted to notice the thieves until it was too late. Once his car was stolen from a parking lot when he left the keys in the door. He was only a few feet away, returning a shopping cart to the curbside, but he was completely unaware of the thief entering and starting his car and driving off with it. He has been mugged several times because he did not notice assailants coming up behind him. A SSigDOG can provide increased safety without any aggression training. Just the presence of a dog would deter many of these acts. In addition, the dog can be trained to alert the man to people approaching him or his belongings, so the man can be aware of what is happening and decide on a response.
Routines and changes
Autistic people have many different kinds of problems with routines and changes. They may have trouble learning a sequence of steps in a routine activity, or they may learn a routine too rigidly and have trouble modifying it when necessary. They may have trouble organizing space and constantly misplace things, or they may insist on a rigidly structured environment and become upset about minor changes. A dog's natural ability to learn routines can be used to provide the person with a system of prompts and reminders. A dog's natural ability to recognize and accommodate changes can be used to help the person gain flexibility in dealing with simple changes that cannot be specifically predicted and trained for in advance.
Example #11: A child cannot dress herself and resists her parents' attempts to teach her, but she enjoys putting on her own socks if her dog brings them to her. A SSigDOG can be trained to bring the child one article of clothing at a time, and a backwards chaining method can be used to teach the child to dress herself.
Example #12: An adult has learned all the skills necessary to get ready for work in the morning, but he has trouble getting all of them done in the right order. He may step out of the shower and put on his clothes without drying himself first, or forget to shave, or leave home without his lunch. A SSigDOG can be trained to follow the man through his daily routine and provide some prompt at each step to remind him what to do next. For instance, the dog may lead the man into the bathroom to remind him to shower, bring him a towel when he finishes showering, bring his razor to remind him to shave, etc.
Example #13: A student follows the same route when walking to and from school every day. If she encounters an obstacle (such as a puddle on the sidewalk, a parked car blocking a driveway, or an area of road under repair), she is able to recognize the obstacle, but she has trouble organizing her perceptions of the environment in order to find a way around it. For instance, if she sees that the sidewalk is covered with mud she may try to find the driest or shallowest part of the mud to walk through, instead of recognizing that she can avoid the mud entirely by walking on the grass. A SSigDOG can use its broader awareness of the environment to lead her around the obstacle.
Example #14: A person has a job doing custodial work in a school building. His normal routine includes cleaning certain classrooms every afternoon after school hours. Occasionally there are people holding an after-school meeting in one of the rooms. The man appears oblivious to the people and begins his usual cleaning activities, thereby disrupting the meeting. A dog would naturally recognize unusual people in the room as a change to be investigated. A SSigDOG can call the man's attention to such changes so he can decide whether a change in his routine activities is necessary. Example #15: A college student lives in a dormitory that has an electronically controlled lock on the main entrance. People enter the dormitory by ringing a bell and waiting for a buzzer signifying that the security monitor in the lobby has unlocked the door. Occasionally, as when students are moving their belongings in or out of the dormitory, or when deliveries are being made, the door is left propped open and the monitor does not need to buzz people in. The student does not notice the open door, and she continues to stand in the entryway ringing the bell and waiting for the buzzer to sound. A dog, unless it had been specifically trained NOT to go through the door until it heard the buzzer, would naturally recognize the open door as the most significant cue for entering the building. A SSigDOG can use this recognition to guide the woman through the door without waiting for the buzzer.
And more . . .
Autism and related disabilities interfere with basic perception and learning processes. While a dog cannot replace human reasoning and judgment, a trained SSigDOG can compensate for many perceptual and learning impairments. A SSigDOG is essentially an attention-focuser. A Caregiver Assistance SSigDOG is trained to recognize which behaviors of a dependent person require attention, and to alert caregivers to those behaviors. A Direct Assistance SSigDOG is trained to recognize which features of an independent person's environment require attention, and to alert the person to those features.
Copyright (c) 1990 Jim Sinclair