Autism Dog

Caleb is a seven-year-old boy with severe autism. Nonverbal with a low cognitive level, he uses communication cards to interact with others. He also relies on a service dog to address symptoms associated with his autism. For instance, Caleb has a tendency to “elope,” which means that he runs off, especially when he gets upset or wants to escape an environment that is overwhelming.

When he becomes anxious, he shrieks, paces, plugs his ears, laughs inappropriately and/or flaps his arms. This behavior can escalate to the point that his parents are unable to calm him, and their only recourse is to physically remove him from the situation. Two or three times a month, he becomes extremely agitated, screaming and dropping to the ground or trying to run away. On one occasion, he couldn’t be found for 45 minutes. In that time, he had managed to get a quarter-mile from home, and had crossed one intersection and was about to cross another. For individuals with autism, eloping is the primary cause of non-health-related death.

Being paired with a service dog last year vastly improved Caleb’s quality of life. Eddy, a golden retriever trained by Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA), stops Caleb from eloping and intervenes when he “stims,” or engages in repetitive actions—a common practice for people with autism. Eddy also increases Caleb’s independence and improves his communication and social skills.

Caleb’s family obtained Eddy after going through ASDA’s extensive application process, which includes evaluation of the recipient as well as the family. A nonprofit organization based in Lake Oswego, OR, ASDA typically places dogs with children at the severe end of the autism spectrum. For maximum therapeutic effectiveness, the dog is supposed to spend 24 hours a day with the child, including schooltime.

Each ASDA dog undergoes training that lasts nearly two years, beginning when the animal is six to eight weeks old. Kati Rule-Witko spent a year and a half working with Eddy, teaching him how to interact with a variety of people in different environments. She and the animal logged a good deal of classroom time with children who have autism. Next, Rule-Witko set aside 20 to 25 hours a week for one-on-one training. Then Caleb’s mother traveled to Oregon for two weeks of instruction on ASDA methods. Finally, Rule-Witko visited the family in California for three days of in-home training.

Now, Eddy is tethered to Caleb by a five-foot leash, which loops around the boy’s waist and is connected to the animal’s service pack. When the dog is given a “down stay” command, he lies down and remains where he is, thwarting any attempt by Caleb to run off. However, the boy is free to move about independently within that five-foot radius without adult supervision.

Eddy is trained to sense Caleb’s moods and intervene if the child gets anxious or starts to stim. When the boy stims, the dog nudges or licks him to calm him and redirect the boy’s attention. If the child is sitting down, the animal will rest his head and legs in the boy’s lap to help Caleb self-regulate and remain calm. In the first few months they were together, Caleb learned to call Eddy by name, and it is still the only name Caleb says.

The child had been attending a typical Southern California elementary school with Eddy by his side. But by the end of the 2009–2010 academic year, the school was refusing to allow Eddy to return. Caleb’s family asked the Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) to help get Eddy readmitted to the school. When negotiations with the district failed, the DRLC, along with pro bono attorneys from Winston & Strawn LLP, filed a lawsuit.

The district argued in court papers that Eddy did not qualify as a service dog under federal statutes and that the animal might disrupt school activities and burden the staff. Attorneys for the district also asserted that the dog might undermine Caleb’s independence and self-control.

The court dismissed the suit and required Caleb’s family to attempt to resolve the issue through an administrative special-education hearing. While the hearing process was taking place, the fall 2010 semester started, and Caleb had to begin the school year without his assistive animal. Since then, Caleb’s verbalization skills have decreased. He says “Eddy” only on rare occasions, and his connection with Eddy diminished to the point that the animal was less effective in stopping Caleb’s from eloping, tantrums and stimming.

After the administrative hearing concluded without a positive result for the plaintiff—the administrative body stated that it did not have jurisdiction over that type of Americans with Disability Act (ADA) case and it was dismissed—DRLC and Winston Strawn LLP filed a second lawsuit. The attorneys argued that Eddy met the definition of service dog specified in the ADA and that allowing Caleb to take him to school was a “reasonable accommodation,” since the boy’s independence and self-control both declined in the dog’s absence, which eroded the bond between them, and thereby diminished the effectiveness of the relationship. Even before the U.S. Department of Justice issued new regulations regarding service animals, which took effect last spring, Eddy fit within the definition of a service animal. Under the ADA, a service dog is “any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability,” as long as the tasks are directly related to the individual’s disability.”

On June 13, 2011, Judge Andrew Guilford of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the family a preliminary injunction. The case represented the first time a federal judge had held that a student with autism has a right to attend school with a service dog. In granting the motion for preliminary injunction, Guilford concluded that Eddy qualified as a service dog under the ADA due to the service animal’s ability to prevent and interrupt the boy’s destructive behavior.

Now, Eddy is accompanying Caleb to school again, to the benefit of the boy and his classmates. The court required the family to post a bond to address any risks the school district might have to assume; the school district will not appeal the ruling. His family hopes the case will be resolved quickly for Caleb’s sake, and for the sake of other children with autism who face similar challenges.

by Paula Pearlman and Maronel Barajas

Pearlman is the Executive Director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, and a visiting associate professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, while Barajas is a senior staff attorney at the DRLC.

Disability Rights Legal Center

Excerpts from the John C. McGinley Issue Dec/Jan 2011-12:

Kessler Foundation — Research That Gets People Moving

John C. McGinley — Expanding His Role

John Sie — And the Global Down Team

Food Deserts — Activists Help Communities Get Good Food

Ashley Fiolek — Befriends Noora, an Iranian Racer

Raketu — Cool Apps for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

DLRC — A Fight to Protect a Boy and His Dog

Articles in the John C. McGinley Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Befriends Noora, an Iranian Racer; Noora Moghaddas — Befriends Ashley, a US Racer; Humor — To Anchorage With Love Sen. Tom Harkin — Jobs + Education = American Dream; Raketu — Cool Apps for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Adaptive Golf — The Fight Over Carts; USBLN — Annual Conference in Kentucky; Kessler Foundation — Research That Gets People Moving; Food Deserts — Activists Help Communities Get Good Food; John C. McGinley — Expanding His Role; John Sie — A Career That Spans Tech, TV and Top Research; Global Down Syndrome — Bringing Their ‘A’ Team; DLRC — A Fight to Protect a Boy and His Dog; Betsy Valnes — On Creating a World Disability Congress; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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