Originally published in the Arlington Citizen Journal
After her daughter went to a pet-grooming class this summer, Dunn Elementary special-education teacher Amy Yancey had an idea. Why not see whether she could get therapy dogs to visit her young students, most of whom have been diagnosed with autism? She contacted city community services educator Chris Huff, who told her, “I know exactly who to talk to for that.” The result was a special visit last week by Deacon, a friendly golden retriever owned by Susan Waits, and Leroy Brown, a playful English bulldog owned by Kristie Miller. The mostly kindergarten-age students in Yancey’s class are involved in the ABLE program — Applied Behavior Learning Environment. Students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder typically experience impairments in three areas — communication, social or work behavior, and imagination or abstract thought — according to the district website. Yancey hoped the dogs, accompanied by their owners and Huff, would help the children put together things they’ve been working on, including verbalization and appropriate behavior. The lesson was also meant to teach them how to approach a dog. “This is a way to get them to socialize in a good way and to bring out interaction with each other and other people, facilitated by the dogs,” she said. “Even after the dogs are gone, the children will remember it.”
Khang Nguyen was in a group of kids caressing Deacon. “The dog is being petted,” he said, a big smile on his face. “Ruff, ruff.” Across the classroom, student William Craig rolled a tennis ball to Leroy Brown. Each time the dog picked up the ball, Alphonse Rollins jumped up and down, his arms raised. “This is exactly what we were looking for,” said Yancey, surveying the activity. “This room is buzzing.” In the Arlington district, 11 schools offer the ABLE program, including Bailey and Ferguson junior high schools and Arlington and Martin high schools. About 1 in 110 children has autism, according to the latest estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doctors do not know what causes autism but have been investigating possible genetic and environmental triggers. Autism is diagnosed by making judgments about a child’s behavior; there are no biological tests. For decades, the diagnosis was given only to kids with severe language and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. The definition of autism has gradually expanded, and autism is now shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions. Health officials have urged stepped-up screening for autism, saying early therapy can improve how well children develop. Last week’s therapy dog visit was the first of its kind in a partnership between the city and the district. Such visits are also done at nursing homes, Huff said. “This serves a functional purpose, too,” she said. “It’s not just teaching them how to interact. It’s letting them do it in a natural environment.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Patrick M. Walker,