I’ve heard that dogs can be trained to help autistic kids. Is that true?
In two words, Yes, but.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a wide range of symptoms that stem from a neurological disconnect characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication and severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behavior. The range of impairments in functioning run from mild to severe, but the real test about the benefit of a service dog is whether the child and his/her family have an interest in dogs.
For the children within the spectrum who find aspects of a dog extremely rewarding, an appropriate dog can greatly benefit the child in many ways including calming (tactile stimulation–petting the soft fur of a dog), helping develop pragmatic language skills and social interactions (people are more likely to engage a child who is paired with a lovely dog), help alert to a child’s possible impulse control (running away, “escaping,” and causing possible risk of danger), give a child something to focus on in overly stimulating environments (trip to a store, doctor’s office, etc.), as well as just being a companion who gives unconditional love and comfort in an often scary and overwhelming world.
Having worked with several children and their service dogs, many of whom were within the autism spectrum, the greatest successes were those families who all enjoyed all aspects of dog ownership. For more information on service dogs and children, check out The Golden Bridge, published by Purdue University Press (NOTE: I contributed a chapter on puppy raising for this book).