April is Autism Awareness Month
Freedom Service Dogs extends a helping paw to children and adults with autismDonate now
What you may not know is that Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) provides custom-trained service dogs for people with autism, including children as young as five years old.
“For people living on the autism spectrum, casual interactions and daily activities that most of us take for granted can be overwhelming,” says FSD President and CEO Michele Ostrander. “At Freedom Service Dogs, we have been custom-training shelter dogs to assist clients with autism spectrum disorder for many years, but only in a limited capacity with young adults age 12 and older. In doing so, we witnessed the incredible benefits our dogs bring to these clients, both psychologically and socially, and that’s why we began exploring ways to offer those same benefits to children at a much younger age.”
That dream became a reality in August 2017, when FSD joined forces with Disco’s Dogs, a Colorado nonprofit founded in 2013 by Laura Edwards. As the mother of a then five-year-old son on the autism spectrum, Edwards was searching for alternative interventions when she learned about the life-changing gift that service dogs can be for children and their families. But to her dismay, Edwards soon discovered the many challenges and cost barriers associated with obtaining a highly trained service dog, including the fact that many organizations would not place a dog with a child under 12 years old.
Edwards’ son eventually was paired with a skilled companion service dog named Disco through a prison-based canine training program. After Edwards completed the dog’s public-access training herself, Disco fulfilled her hopes for a better life not only for her son, but also for everyone in the family. Inspired by her personal experience, Edwards established Disco’s Dogs with the mission to adopt dogs from shelters and train each one individually alongside families for six months, resulting in service dogs for children age five and older who are living with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental and neurocognitive disabilities.
Disco’s Dogs and its unique training model, which allows families to be an integral part of the training process, is now a program of Freedom Service Dogs—and Edwards is carrying on her life’s work as FSD’s director of dog operations. Dogs in the program are trained to help those on the autism spectrum with a variety of important tasks, including interrupting harmful behaviors, regulating sensory input, increasing focus, and improving motor skills. The dogs can also provide a social bridge for children to interact with their environment and the people around them, giving kids the motivation to communicate with their communities and the encouragement to try everyday activities they might otherwise avoid.
Says Edwards, “For children living with autism-related differences, a Freedom Service Dog can be a calming weighted blanket, a confidence-boosting icebreaker, and a best friend in a challenging world. Equally important, these dogs can provide an enhanced quality of life for the entire family that they never imagined possible. And of course, it means so much to these families that we provide all of our service dogs to our clients free of charge.”
Seven-year-old Lukas received an autism diagnosis when he was not quite three years old. Although his parents, Lori and Stefan, achieved many milestones with Lukas since that time through a variety of programs and treatments, they were particularly concerned with how to diffuse Lukas’ tantrums before he hurt himself or others around him. After learning about the Disco’s Dogs program and Freedom Service Dogs at an autism conference, they were accepted into the program and paired with a black Lab named Tico.
The family and Tico completed six months of intensive training at FSD and graduated in December 2017. Today, Lori and Stefan are beyond delighted with the difference Tico is making in Lukas’ life. Says Stefan, “Since Tico joined our family last July, words cannot express the calm he has brought to this family. Each time a tantrum begins, Tico is a little more responsive to Lukas’ needs, and their bond continues to grow daily. He is a cherished member of the family, and his bond with Lukas will be instrumental for Lukas’ continuing progress. He is revered by all of us for his ability to reach through to Lukas in a way none of us can. As any special-needs parent will question if they are doing all they can do for their child, we take pride in knowing we have—and Freedom Service Dogs of America made it all possible.”
Learn more about the Disco’s Dogs program at Freedom Service Dogs, how to apply for a service dog, and more.
Donate today to help support the training and placement of service dogs with individuals living with autism-related differences.