Many parents of students with autism who lack verbal fluency are seeking to draw their children out, often with traditional speech therapy. For some students, however, this form of therapy may not produce all the results that the parents were hoping for, even with an excellent speech-language therapist.
In some cases, verbally-challenged students with autism may respond more readily to a dog, who naturally communicates non-verbally, than to an adult human therapist. To get the service dog to obey, the student needs to give commands clearly and loudly, which is a natural speech range for most students with autism.
In my effort to help one of my art therapy students express himself more fully, I contacted Rhoni Standefer, a church disability consultant for Open Doors Tennessee who provides training, consultation, and seminars for children with a range of disabilities.
In the past, the 16-year-old student with communication challenges had expressed an interest in working with service dogs, and had repeatedly drawn and painted pictures of them during our lessons together. When I mentioned the opportunity to work with Rhoni’s young service-dog-in-training, Jake, my student grinned from ear to ear.
Rhoni and Jake met us at the student’s usual location for lessons to increase his feeling of familiarity with the situation. For this lesson, my role was simply to produce visuals for the activity and to introduce Rhoni and Jake to my student. We helped our student transition into the training activity by introducing Jake to him inside the comfortable, familiar confines of the building. Early on, Rhoni told the student to always use Jake’s name first to get his attention before each command. To reinforce that format, we made signs with Jake’s name and each command to help guide the student through the series of tasks.
After we moved outside, Rhoni began to model speech for us with the command “Jake, side!” which brought Jake and our student to her side! Then we began our stroll around the building toward a parking garage. Having seen Jake respond to her commands, the student wanted to give the dog verbal commands of his own.
By the time we reached the other side of the building, a pattern was created in the student’s mind. Then the “course” made the student aware of the direction in which he was traveling, which helped orient him and let him know where we were going next. Having placed a row of the pre-made signs on the posts, the student tracked behind the handler and her dog, watching her give Jake commands until reaching the row of signs.
Then, the three of them walked through the command sequence, reading the sign at each signpost. It took 3 trips through the course for the student to become comfortable with the commands and procedure, but once he did, he began giving the commands to Jake loudly and confidently.
Back inside the building, Rhoni asked the student if he would do a painting of Jake, and he said yes! She had helped our student make speech connections and start his art lesson with purpose. When we said goodbye to them, it was clear that we could repeat this activity in the future to reinforce those speech skills.
If you have any questions about how to incorporate service animals into a speech therapy or art therapy plan for students with autism, I’d be happy to talk to you! Just contact me through my Facebook page.