Extreme mood fluctuations, wandering off, wariness to physical contact: these are some of the challenges that many children with disabilities including autism and Down Syndrome can experience. When a child can only speak a little or not at all, such difficulties can be exacerbated, as I know too well from raising our severely autistic teenage son, Charlie.
On countless walks and bike rides, Charlie, my husband and I have encountered many dogs as well as horses, Canadian geese and the occasional deer. Charlie is always very attuned to animals and they to him, as he (and they) rely so much on non-verbal communication.
To get an idea of how an animal can interact with a child with disabilities and in ways that make a huge difference for him, take a look at this video of a dog named Himalaya and a toddler, Hernán, who has Down Syndrome and lives in Buenos Ares. As Hernán’s mother’s mother, Ana, notes, the little boy is very sensitive about physical contact.
Himalaya gently (and successfully, as you can see at the end of the video) persists in making contact with Hernán. After a few minutes, she’s even able to give him a hug.
In Ohio, a service dog named Spring has also had a special effect on an autistic girl, 6-year-old Shyanna Gretz.
Shyanna’s parents spent two years raising funds and waiting to get a special dog for Shyanna; their wait was finally over this past July when a 1-year-old old Labrador, Spring, came into their lives. As Shyanna’s mother, Charla Gretz, says, with Spring, Shyanna has been in better control of her mood fluctuations and able to go on family outings.
This August, Shyanna was supposed to start attending first-grade in an inclusive setting in the Athens City School District. She had previously attended the Beacon School, which is run by the Beacon Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities. But on the first day of school, Gretz was told that Shyanna would have to transfer to another elementary school due to her teacher being severely allergic to dog dander.
Gretz had not been informed that Shyanna could not attend the school due to the teacher’s health concerns until the first day of school. The school district proposed that Shyanna attend a different elementary school, but Gretz had serious concerns about this, as the school was further away and meant that her daughter would have to have a longer bus ride.
Shyanna stayed at home (quite confused, as Gretz says) while school officials and her parents sought a solution. Happily, they came up with one: for the upcoming school year, Shyanna will continue to attend the Beacon School. By next year, she will be able to attend an elementary school in the Athens School District, after officials from the Athens School District figure out how to accommodate Spring.
Service dogs are allowed in classrooms under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both students and teachers who might have allergies have the legal right to be accommodated for such, as Sara Clark, an attorney with the Ohio School Boards Association, notes; using separate classrooms is one possible solution.
It’s commendable that the dispute about Spring’s presence at school with Shyanna was resolved without undue conflict and quite quickly. It’s certainly a very good sign that the Athens School District sought to accommodate Shyanna’s needs and recognized how Spring (just as Himalaya did for Hernán) can make a difference.