The Alabama state legislature has passed a bill allowing all types of service dogs, including autism therapy dogs, in schools across the state. Currently, the law says that someone who is blind or hearing impaired may be accompanied by a service dog; now, someone with diagnosed on the autism spectrum can have a dog. Further, the dogs don’t have to have their own handlers: Aides assisting autistic students can now be trained to work with the child and the service dog as a team, says WAAY TV.
It’s a bill that Anna Laura Bryan, a local contestant in the Miss Alabama Pageant has spent the last couple of years fighting to get passed. 12 year old Brayden Ellis and her autism dog, Puah have accompanied Bryan on the state at the pageant the past two years.
Brayden and her dog have been attending Somerville Road Elementary School in Decatur for the three years. Her mother, Wendy Ellis said that she couldn’t be happier about the news.
“It was just so exciting to know this state was, not only one of the first schools to have a service dog, but now, they’re one of the first states to stand up for these kids and get these service dogs in the schools,” said Ellis.
There have been numerous reports about the benefits of therapy dogs for autistic children in the past few years. The dogs have been said to calm children who may not be able to communicate needs and frustrations too easily. I’m not the only parent who has noted that my autistic child has unusual responses to sensory stimuli and can see how petting a dog, and having it present, could soothe a child (though my own son is very wary of dogs — when they visit the autism center he attends, he keeps a thoughtful distance). In view of reports about autistic children wandering, a dog could also play a crucial role in keeping a child safe.
Some school districts have not allowed autistic children to have their therapy dogs in school. 4 Paws for Ability, an agency that trains service dogs for individuals with disabilities, notes that it took a three-year legal fight for a 10-year-old autistic boy in Hillsboro, Oregon, to use his trained service dog, Madison, in school. Dog Law Reporter recounts some of the complications of training and handling — and the definite benefits to the child — in the case of an Illinois family, who sued the Villa Grove School District in 2009 so their autistic child could be accompanied by his service dog, Chewy, in school (you can read more about the lawsuit at K.D. v. Villa Grove Community Unit School District No. 32 Board of Education).
As more autistic children have therapy dogs, and there are more requests to have them in schools — and school districts like those in Oregon and Illinois resist — calls for legislation like that in Alabama will most likely be heard.
Governor Bentley is expected to sign Alabama House BIll 502 in a few weeks.
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