• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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How will the autism service dog help the Tot?


What does an Autism Service Dog do?tommy n rocky

This is a question I have received a lot over the past two weeks. I can tell you that having a service dog is not a miracle cure.  It is a lot of work (as is having any dog), and it takes time, patience, and persistence to continue training.  That said, what I can tell you so far is that Rocky has been great for the Tot!

Many of you know that my Tot has explosive meltdowns, runs from me in public (which I’d stopped taking out in), cannot sit in restaurants (why would I do that to myself), and does not make transitions well!  It is a fight to leave the house, and get in the van. Then whenever it is time to go back home from where it was that we went, it is a war to get the Tot back in the van.  Most of the time either my son or husband has to physically pick him up kicking and screaming and bring him back to the van. Then the Tot would refuse to get in, kick, scream, arch his back so as to  make it impossible to buckle his seatbelt.  It made even the most pleasant trip to a playground a nightmare not worth embarking upon.

Rocky has only been with us only a short time (two weeks tomorrow) so I am not expecting miracles yet—or at least I wasn’t. However, I can tell you about many little miracles already.


A Calming Effect


We have been working on having the Tot sit down and pet Rocky when he gets really upset.  Many times he has difficulty with “wait” even if waiting only means waiting for his cartoon to load, or for me to fill his Sippy cup with milk.  A meltdown begins if the request is not met with supernatural instantaneous results.  This is where Rocky came in—we began (at the trainers direction) to redirect the Tot to Rocky and practice petting him ten times while he waits for whatever is is he is needing at the time.  This has worked so well.  Even when the Tot did not want to cooperate and counted begrudgingly, by the time he got to ten he was smiling and giggling.

A trip to the playground always ends in disastrous screaming because the Tot doesn’t want to leave.  Having Rocky with us didn’t change that—but when we got into the car, I pulled off the Tot’s gloves and said, “If you pet Rocky, his fur will warm up your hands.”  The Tot was still screaming and crying at this point while Rock sat next to him on the seat calmly.  Usually, my little one will scream, cry, kick, and flail all the way home; him giggling and smiling before we drove two blocks is nothing short of a miracle! We arrived home with a happy Tot, who got right out of the car holding onto Rocky’s leash.




The transition to from the park to the car was not good, but the recovery time from his meltdown was 100 times faster allowing him to transition smoothly back to the house when we arrived.  I have found similar improvements in transitions when introducing Rocky into the situation.  Leaving the house for any reason was always a fight, now when the Tot sees me dress Rocky (put his service vest on) he jumps up and wants to put his boots on to leave.  He even left the other day in the middle of his favorite Octonauts episode!  As long as Rocky gets in the van before him, he is happy to hop in and get in his car seat—one time he even buckled himself in!

We went to look at a home the other night, and if you read my husband’s blog here, you know that it did not go well as far as the Tot’s behavior was concerned.  In fact, it was madness.  However, a detail that was left out of his account was that we left Rocky in the car when we went inside—that was the first problem.  The Tot is now used to Rocky getting out of the car with him and he began the viewing screaming. He wanted Rocky to come too.  Maybe I should have just allowed it, but I figured that we were viewing a home for sale, it was not our house, and I didn’t want to bring the dog inside.  (I may re-think that in the future because everything after that point was non-stop screaming and meltdown over anything and everything.)

There are still so many things that Rocky will assist Tommy (and I) with—like finding him when he runs off. We are beginning to work on “find Tommy.”


Potty Training


The Tot recently turned 4 years old (it is hard to believe he’s 4 already), and he still does not signal when he needs to go potty, and has absolutely no interest in even trying.  Well, three times already in the past two weeks he has requested to “go potty, “ and even told me he is “trying to keep his pants dry.” It may just be coincidental timing, but I’ve heard story after story about ASD children beginning to spontaneous use the potty shortly after their service dogs arrive—is there a connection? I truly don’t know; I’m just glad he has taken the first steps.


the Tot and Rock

Interacting with Others


And last but  absolutely not least—the most amazing thing I have found is that when Rocky is out in public with us, people interact with Tommy in a completely different way.  They approach us, and ask about his dog, they ask him questions about his dog, and in general smile and wave vs. give us those dirty “why the hell can’t you control your kid” looks. 

Sometimes the difference in the way people treat my boy is amazing.  We were at a restaurant here in town where the waitresses were irritated that I had to return the Tot’s meal  because they gave him tater tots instead of fries (which I asked for when I ordered by the way) because he was crying for his French fries.  The kid actually sat there nicely waiting for his fries that day too. 

He ate nothing on his plate because those tater tots were there…and the poor kid only wanted his fries.  If they would have had the order right in the first place, there would not have been a French fry meltdown.

When Rocky arrived we ate there again (because no one else was open) and—same waitress—was all smiles and giggles and telling us how cute he was (no, not the dog, the Tot!).  I guess she had not remembered us from a few weeks before.  The Tot ordered a kids pepperoni pizza…(he only eats the pepperoni off the pizza so the pepperoni is the  most important part).  They did not have any (who offers pizza but has no pepperoni?)  The Tot began to cry, and demand pepperoni he wanted nothing else to eat…

The waitress told him not to worry that she was going to go upstairs (I don’t know where upstairs was) and find him some pepperoni!  And she did!  Despite the fact it wasn’t on the menu, she went out of her way to get my little boy the pepperoni and put it on the pizza for him.  Suddenly the Tot was not the little bratty kid in the restaurant—he was the special child in the restaurant.  I was floored.

Now I didn’t tell that story to say that he should be treated differently, or that the waitress was right in treating him well this time, but not the last because they should have treated us the same both times—but to illustrate the way the public has responded to Rocky’s presence in relationship to my son. 

OH yes, and some exciting news:  I spoke to strange people!  LOL  In the park, walking Rocky, they stopped to ask about him, to tell me about their own dogs…and a service dog they have had.  People everywhere stop to tell me about their service dogs, and their labs in general.  This handsome guy is a people magnet! 

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.