Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life

Lu Feiran
A school in Minhang District trains dogs as buddies and guardians for children with special needs.
Lu Feiran

Xuan Xuan was diagnosed as autistic not long after his second birthday. He didn't speak, nor respond to other people. His parents learned to cope with his disability.

But when Xuan Xuan was 7, the boy's condition changed dramatically after Harry came to live with the family.

Harry is a 3-year-old black Labrador, trained at the Erxing Shanghai Guide and Assistant Dogs School to aid autistic people.

Harry accompanies Xuan Xuan to his special kindergarten and plays with him after school. Two months after the dog appeared on the scene, Xuan Xuan's mother Jessica Gong saw significant differences in her son.

"We found that our boy was more willing to stay with the dog rather than immersing himself in electronic devices," Gong told Shanghai Daily.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Ti Gong

An autism assistance dog has brought comfort to 7-year-old Xuan Xuan from Shandong Province.

She added that her son also shows less "self-stimulation behavior," such as repeatedly hitting his forehead with his palm. She said she thinks that playing with Harry allows Xuan Xuan to release pent-up energy and emotion in less harmful ways.

Harry is one of four autism assistance dogs that graduated from Erxing school, which hosted China's first attempt to train dogs to aid autistic people. For more than two decades, similar programs have been developing in the West.

Autism service dogs are acknowledged globally as a means of providing autistic children with a stability and soothing that helps them cope better with the daunting world that surrounds them.

Erxing started its autism assistance dog training program in 2021. The first graduating class from a course designed to last 18-24 months was delayed by the coronavirus epidemic.

Shanghai Daily visited Erxing's training base in Minhang District last week, where a new group of canine recruits are in training.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Lu Feiran / SHINE

A trainer at Erxing plays with Danny, a dog in the autism assistance training program.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Lu Feiran / SHINE

All assistance dogs wear a uniform when working.

"Training these dogs is similar to the training of seeing-eye dogs but with different requirements," said Wang Chunsun, founder of Erxing and dog-training specialist who returned from Canada nearly two decades ago.

"For instance, autism assistance dogs are usually required to be stronger than guide dogs," he said. "One of their tasks is to sense when a child attached to them may be about to roam away, and then to lay down to stop them. That requires strength.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Lu Feiran / SHINE

Trainers simulate a scene when an autistic child is about to wander off and train a dog named Chengyi to lie down to stop her with his weight.

A mother who identified herself only as Shuya told Shanghai Daily that the dog's skill in stopping her autistic son from wandering off was really helpful.

"Harley, a 2-year-old Labrador, goes almost everywhere with us – to school, for a walk in the city, to the park," she said. "We find our son Xiao Ye is becoming more stable with each passing day. He trusts Harley and often says, 'I have my dad, my brother and my Harley at home.'"

Apart from stopping children from roaming away, the dogs are trained to soothe autistic children if they become upset. The dogs comfort their young charges with their paws or chin on a child's thigh.

"It has been scientifically proved that such action, with proper weight, will effectively lower the heartbeat and blood pressure for these children, which means that it is very soothing," Wang said.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Lu Feiran / SHINE

Chengyi practice putting his chin on trainer's thigh in a gesture meant to provide comfort.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Ti Gong

It is essential to get trainee dogs familiar with their working environment.

In addition, the school trains the dogs to remain calm when, for example, the children may uncontrollably play with their food or do jerky movements that might upset a dog.

After a dog graduates, the school invites a "matching family" to come to Shanghai to train and bond with the dog.

Gong and her husband, who come from the eastern coastal province of Shandong, learned about the program from an online video.

When they went to the school in Shanghai, they were taught about 30 orders in English that they could use to interact with Harry. Under the guidance of school staff, the family also visited various sites, such as Metro stations and shopping malls, with Harry to accustom the dog to his working environment.

"We're grateful that Harry and Xuan Xuan bonded so quickly," she said.

Paw-sitive outcomes: Autistic children who need help get a new leash on life
Ti Gong

Before taking assistance dogs home, families need to spend 10 days with the dogs for joint training to bond with them.

In 2023, the number of people with autism in China reached 13 million, including over 3 million children.

Wang said the program has been swamped with applications.

"We held an open day recently for the public, and people drove from all over the country to look at the program," he said.

Using an autism assistance dog is more challenging than guide dogs because people with autistic disorders can't care for themselves and need family support.

Wang cited the case of a family that eventually had to give up an assistance dog. The parents and a grandmother were working two jobs in order to financially support care and treatment for an autistic child named Lu Lu. When the dog arrived at their home, the grandmother had to quit one of the two jobs to stay with her granddaughter and the dog, which caused economic hardships that the family decided they couldn't bear.

"The sad case makes us think about what we can do to help families in similar circumstances," Wang said. "And that requires support from the society, too."


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