Thursday, August 18, 2011
Dear Ms. Hopkins,
We read with interest your article entitled, "Autistic boy receives love and help from trained dog" (Calgary Herald, June 3, 2011). At first glance, this is a moving story and we read with interest how Griffin the dog had been well received at the boy's school. Indeed, dogs can be very social and loving pets, and may also, by virtue of their sociability, momentarily increase opportunities for social contact that children with autism have with others. It was also heart-warming to learn of the book that Jonathan's sister wrote regarding her relationship with her brother affected by autism.
We believe it is important and necessary to make the distinction between the joys of a relationship with a pet and the effects of treatment for autism. It should be pointed out that there is insufficient published research to show that dogs - or any other animals - can assist with improving the key symptoms of autism, although there may be an abundance of touching stories to this effect. For the sake of the well-being of their children affected by autism, we encourage parents to be savvy consumers of any therapy they are considering. Often, treatments that sound helpful and, perhaps even wonderfully effective, are of no therapeutic benefit and costly to families.
While Jonathan and his family have benefited from their experiences with their dog, Griffin, your report left us with the following concerns:
- Therapeutic benefit for Jonathan is not explained other than to say that he does not resist Griffin, and that the dog seems to have a calming effect on him. Proponents of pet-facilitated therapy must be able to document benefit in objective and measurable ways that this benefit is enduring and not limited to interactions in presence of the pet, and publish those findings in peer reviewed journals. To the best of our knowledge, such published findings do not exist.
- The statement, "Griffin is breaking through Jonathan's wall in a way that others can't" implies that the dog (and not his family, teachers, and other providers) is a necessary key to improvement in Jonathan's life. This may lead some parents to believe that a dog trained as an "autism support dog" will improve the functioning of their child with autism in the absence of scientifically supported treatments. The scientific record does not support this assumption.
- You mentioned that the family had to wait a long period of time prior to having Griffin join their families. Children with autism need access to effective intervention right away, particularly in light of the abundance of research supporting science-based, early intervention. We are saddened to think that there would be at least one parent who would read your article and wait for a "therapy dog" for up to two years, and not pursue or advocate for science-based treatment today.
- Please know that there are existing science-based treatment methods to help parents and siblings forge positive relationships with children with autism, and to help teachers and other providers teach important skills such as walking to school safely and quickly with a family member. With all due respect, humans can help with these skills through systematic instruction.
- With 1 in 110 children being diagnosed with autism today, it would be unrealistic to think that there would be enough "therapy dogs" to go around.
Although Mr. Thornton, who opened the Autism Dog Support Program, generously donated the costs associated with training Griffin, this is not typical. Normally, parents must secure sparse public funds or pay privately to obtain a "therapy dog." At a time in which funding is being cut for so many needed services, we must be very careful about how monies are being used to pay for autism treatment. To put things in perspective, $37,000 can pay for several years of consultation from a board certified behavior analyst, or two years of speech therapy (3 hourly sessions per week) or 25 hours per week of instruction with a qualified teacher for well over a year.
Journalists should know that there are over 400 treatments for autism, and that autism treatment has become a multimillion-dollar industry. If a journalist picked one treatment a week, he or she would have enough to write about for eight years. In fact, many promoters of various autism treatments use the Internet to tout miracle cures and in so doing, rely heavily on heart-wrenching testimonials. We can assure you that touching stories can be found for almost all of these interventions.
Thank you for highlighting that persons
with autism, like the rest of the community, can enjoy the benefits of pet
ownership; however, when stories about autism treatment are shared, we believe
parents would benefit from more thorough information about the costs and
benefits, as well as the presence or absence of scientific support.
Shannon Wilkinson, MADS, BCaBA
Media Review Committee, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
David Celiberti, Ph.D., BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Read More at http://www.richmond-news.com/.../story.html