Autism Assistance/Service Dogs

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re taking a cuteness break to take a look at autism assistance dogs!

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Just look at him!!! 😍

Sooo cute- but, they also provide a very important service to children, and adults, with autism (some days I wish I could justify getting one to have an official reason to always have a dog around! 😂).

To state the obvious, an autism assistance dog is a service dog that has been trained to help autists to navigate the world and allow them to gain some independence. Some service dogs have been trained to keep their human from leaving the house unattended,  alert children/adults with autism of dangerous situations, prevent self injurious behaviours and even induce calm by applying pressure to the foot or lap of their charge!

So smart!! 😍

Ever since the first autism assistance dog was trained 21 years ago back in 1997, these cuddly canines have made a world of difference to the lives of their owners.

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But what does the research have to say about these benefits?

There is limited research data to show the specific/scientific impact of service dogs as of yet, however the glowing reports from assistance dog owners speaks for itself.

As I discussed in a previous post, some studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet as they act as “social lubricants”. Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a noticeable biological calming effect on people with autism as stroking animals has demonstrated a measurable drop in anxiety levels! So just by being there, autism assistance dogs are having a huge impact to the mental and social wellbeing of their human.

These dogs do however cost around €15,000 to raise over two years, so if you’re thinking about applying for one, really consider yours/your childs needs first as there are many out there who could really benefit from their assistance.

Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! 😀 I do love it when I get an opportunity to chat about dogs! ❤

Okay- maybe just one more cute pic 😉 😍

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Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and the Benefits of Animals

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

We all love our furry and feathered friends dearly don’t we? Seems hard to imagine the internet without funny animal videos these days!

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Animals are so important to us that they are not just friends, but an integral part of the family.

For autists, an animal in the home can be this and so much more (#specialistinterest 😉 )!

Research suggests that animals can play a very important role in the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and can also aid the development of empathy. Animals such as assistance dogs (which I hope to write a post on at a later stage), cats, horses, guinea pigs, and interestingly keeping chickens is the latest trend to help improve these skills in the autistic community!

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Studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet. Pets are often considered “social lubricants” wherein they provide autists with a source of conversation which can encourage better engagement.

Sometimes we find it a lot easier to relate to animals. I’ve often remarked growing up that life would be so much easier if we were all dogs for example. With a dog, life is black and white (fun fact– they aren’t colour blind!). You take care of them, they love you forever-simple. There are no games or tricks (well, unless like my dog yours spins round in circles when you try to brush him to make you dizzy in the hope that you will go away 😛 ), you never have to wonder where you stand with a dog, they’ll make it very clear if they love or hate you!

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Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a measurable biological effect on people with autism! A recent study measured “excitement” levels in children with autism when performing such tasks as reading out loud and playing with a group. The results showed that in these situations, the excitement levels were higher in the brain indicating stress. However, when these levels were measured whilst playing with an animal they  plummeted as stroking the animal induced biological calm.

Finally!

Scientific proof that I should spend more time cuddling my dogs!!! 😉

 

 

However, as beneficial as animals can be, experts advise that the individual needs and sensitivities of the child are taken into consideration when choosing a pet. A dog might seem like a good idea, but whilst many autists may gravitate towards the soft and furry, others may be repulsed by the texture of their hair, the smell or may even be overwhelmed by their energetic nature.

Aoife’s Top Tip– Try to expose your child to different animals to gauge their reactions before making any firm decisions on a pet- they are a big commitment! The research shows that any pet, even a spider, can be beneficial 🙂

There we have it dear Earthlings- another, scientifically proven reason to love animals all the more! 😀

What better way is there to spend the bank holiday weekend than relaxing with your pet? 😉

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Aoife

Can animals have autism?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to explore something I’ve been wondering about a lot recently: can animals be autistic?

We’ve often been told how closely related human and animal genomes are, but what about our brains?

I often look at my German Shepherd and see a lot of autistic traits in him- he has ADHD and anxiety, behaves inappropriately, thinks creatively (he once buried a bone in a mattress) and never really grew out of his puppy brain despite recently turning 6!

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^^^Not my dog, but similarly bonkers! 😛 😉

Naturally, I could be imagining it (as a scientist it’s hard not to over analyse), but what does the evidence have to say?

In clinical research, there are a number of animal models which have been genetically bred to exhibit autistic traits including rats, fruit flys, monkeys and most commonly mice. These animals will have mutations in genes that have been linked to autism which causes them to exhibit some common autistic traits. In the mouse model for example, mice show signs of repetitive behaviours, deficits in social interaction and reciprocation, memory deficits and increased aggression.

But what about in nature?

There is very little evidence to suggest that animals can be autistic, however, a recent study by veterinary behaviorists in the USA has indicated that there is evidence of canine autism! 

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I know!

Maybe I should get my dog diagnosed… 😉

In fact, vets have considered the possibility of autism like symptoms in dogs since 1966!!

The 2015 study examined tail chasing behaviours in bull terriers in addition to running DNA analysis.  These researchers found that tail chasing was associated with trance-like behaviour and random outbursts of aggression in these dogs. In addition to this, tail chasing was more common in males than females- just like human ASD’s. This group also suggested that the physical features of these bull terriers (long face, high-arched palate, and large ears) could be indicative of Fragile X Syndrome-  a genetic condition where 15-60% of this population are additionally diagnosed with autism.

This study is not definitive, but it does open us up to the possibility that autism may naturally exist in the animal kingdom.

As autism can be difficult enough to diagnose in humans, you never know- other animals could quite possibly have autism, we’ve just never considered it! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from the previous post, I’d like to talk to you about shutdowns and autism.

So what exactly is a shutdown?

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A shutdown is basically an episode where the brain briefly stops processing and making sense of information in response to stress or sensory overload.

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

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These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world. Sometimes meltdowns can turn into shutdowns and vice versa.

So what does a shutdown feel like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns can manifest differently among autists. Some people go completely limp and unresponsive, some withdraw completely from those around them, some even become really sleepy and nod off.

For me personally, a shutdown is like entering a state of shock. You might struggle to move (as discussed in my diagnosis story), formulate sentences, or even think. It can be a completely overwhelming experience. When I first started to become aware of them as a teenager, I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that I felt, for lack of a better word, “wrong”.

Like meltdowns, in my experience, shutdowns can be either mild or severe:

Mild shutdowns tend to happen in social situations, especially in confrontation. Someone throws me off or says something that I hadn’t anticipated…aaaannnd my mind freezes up. I go limp and say nothing, whilst the other person talks on oblivious. To an outsider it looks like I’m just listening or defeated by an argument; in reality, my brain can’t formulate the words to respond.

The minute the conversation ends my brain reboots and suddenly all that I could or should have said comes rushing back- great timing! 😛

Severe shutdowns, like meltdowns, are brought on by serious stress, or a shock. Think of your brain like a computer that’s been attacked by a virus. The system get’s overwhelmed by the attack and needs to shuts down to recover. When this happens, it feels as though I’ve been locked out of my own brain.

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However, unlike a meltdown situation, I’m locked out yes, but the brain hasn’t been hijacked. I’m not in a state of total control, but I’m not out of control either- a little bit purgatorial in nature.

It’s a very odd sensation.

I find myself in an overwhelming situation and fail to react. I know that I don’t feel right about the situation, so I try to break down what happened and process. However, when I go to think about the event, it’s as if a firewall has gone up and all of the files in my brain have been encrypted. You keep trying to access your files so you can run a scan to diagnose the problem, but your brain keeps locking you out.

It feels sooo weird, like my mind is flashing this giant ‘NOPE’ sign at me every time I try to think! 😛

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^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face 😛 😉

During a particularly bad shutdown, I once spent about 5 minutes of going “um…ah… what it is… er…you see…uh” down the phone to my mother before I could coherently form a sentence to tell her what had happened. My mind simply refused to let me go there!

But why do shutdowns happen?

There’s not a lot of information out there as to the biological cause of shutdowns, but experts seem to think that it is the result of an abnormal stress response like the meltdown, possibly linked to the high and persistent levels of stress hormones in autism. Some have theorized that the shutdown is almost a preventative form of meltdown wherein the autist shuts down to prevent further sensory input and injury- like playing dead to avoid a fight.

Shutdowns can be difficult, but you just have to give them time to pass 🙂

Top Tip: Like a meltdown, you can sometimes speed up a shut down through music. Animals are also particularly good to release the hold of a shut down. My dogs always seem to sense when something’s wrong with me- a concerned look from them will often get the waterworks flowing 🙂

Remember- your brain needs time to recover after a stressful incident- there’s a reason you need to leave your computer a few minutes rest after a reboot 🙂 😉

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! 🙂

Aoife

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