Autism Service Dogs

IMG_7012Hello everyone. I hope Fall is off to a wonderful start for you (quite frankly, I miss summer already).

We are once again delighted to feature an article, written by high school student, Kathleen Carter, a teen living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Today she writes to us about the impact of having an autism support dog on her day to day life with AS. We thank her for allowing us a glimpse into her life and sharing her insight.

A couple of years ago when I was really struggling in middle school, my parents decided to put me on the waiting list with an organization that trains autism service dogs. I was being bullied often, and as a result of the bullying, my self-esteem had plummeted. I no longer liked or wanted to go to school. It had also caused some of my Asperger’s-related symptoms to worsen. For example, when I feel overwhelmed or anxious, I wring my hands. I was wringing them so often at school that when I came home each day my hands ached. The process of getting a dog can be lengthy, but my wait is about to come to an end. I’ll be getting my service dog a couple of weeks after school starts back. While I’ve made a lot of positive changes in my life that have helped me improve my self-esteem, the timing for my dog’s arrival is actually perfect because I’ll get to work with him for a couple of years before it’s time for me to start college, which will be overwhelming, I’m sure! (Photo by Sonja Lovas)

Here are a few reasons why I’m looking forward to working with my autism service dog:

The dog will be a calming presence. As mentioned above,calmDog in a couple of years, it will be time for me to start college. It took me a long time to adjust to being in high school so I worry that being on a college campus will simply be too overwhelming for me. As this article from Canine Journal on psychiatric service dogs notes, trained service dogs can help keep you centered in difficult situations. They “provide a focal point when situations become difficult to cope with.” I think having my dog there with me in college will help me get centered when I start feeling overwhelmed.

He will help me manage repetitive motions. My hand-wringing has been a big source of embarrassment for me over the years. The truth is often I don’t even realize when I’m doing it. But back in middle school, there were a couple of bullies in my class who were always quick to point it out. Of course, that usually only made things worse. While this is a habit that I’ve gotten largely under control, I worry that it might creep back in when I start college. handsAs this article on service dog tasks notes, my dog and other service dogs are actually trained to nudge a child on the autism spectrum when they give in to repetitive behaviors. This nudging helps the child recognize what they’re doing so that they can stop.

He will keep me safe. As this article notes, one reason autism service dogs are so valuable is that they can reduce a child on the runningautism spectrum’s ability to wander. And while wandering isn’t an issue I’ve ever had to deal with, my dog will keep me safe in other ways. For example, he can be my eyes and ears in public situations that I might find overwhelming. When I do feel overwhelmed, it can be difficult for me to figure out what to do to get myself out of the situation. When I’m in reaction mode, I don’t always notice everything in the environment around me. My dog will help calm me down and help lead me through these situations.

He will be a great companion. My service dog will be able to help me in many ways, companionbut one of the most important roles he’ll play is as my companion. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time with a friend who can, as this article from Mental Health Dogs notes, boost self-esteem, improve mood, help in social situations, reduce feelings of loneliness, and so much more!

The wait to get a service dog has been long, but I think he will be well-worth it. While I’ve gotten to spend time with him while he’s been in training, I can’t wait for him to become a more permanent part of my life and a member of my family.


Kathleen Carter enjoys educating her peers and others about AS. Recently, she began writing proudly about how her experiences differ from other people her age. She is so grateful to have the opportunity to write for EducatorLabs.

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How Diving In Helped Me Get Over Being Bullied

IMG_6388Hello everyone. I hope you are enjoying the beginning of summer. We have something great to share with you. High school student, Kathleen, reached out to us after taking a look through our awareness-related articles. She wrote to us from Educator Labs where she is volunteering to speak out for Asperger’s Syndrome. Along with her research there, she is also creating an outreach program to share resources to empower others to overcome their obstacles. We felt it was a worthy cause and are delighted to share her story. 


Diving

If you’ve ever been bullied, you know how humiliating it can be. Even though you’ve done nothing wrong, you end up feeling ashamed, inadequate, and isolated.

That’s how it was for me during my freshman year of high school when two factors converged to make me an easy target. First, when I entered high school I was around a lot more people who didn’t know me and who didn’t understand my Asperger’s. They saw someone who wasn’t like them and singled me out.

Second, during the summer leading up to freshman year and during freshman year, I gained several pounds. I had always been prone to a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, this is common among kids with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and may be a factor that contributes to the high rate of obesity within the population. Because I wasn’t good at playing sports and I didn’t like exercising, I was always much more content reading a book or watching TV. Then, when middle school ended so did my required PE. It had been the only real exercise I was getting each week.

In high school, the kids who weren’t familiar with me thought I was odd. They’d pick on me because of the hand-wringing and clasping motions I often made and because of my weight.

Soon, just as I had begged my parents not to make me participate in PE when I was younger, I would now ask them if I could stay home sick from school. I even tried to convince my mom to start homeschooling me.

After a trip to the doctor revealed that I could now be classified as “overweight,” upon the recommendation of my doctor, my mom began taking me regularly to swim at the local YMCA. I had learned to swim when I was little, and while I liked being in the water, it was never something I had a deep desire to do. But it didn’t take long for all that to change. After those first trips to the YMCA, I fell in love with swimming. I began to feel better physically and mentally, and on really difficult days it gave me something to look forward to. Here are a few of the ways swimming helped me overcome being bullied:

  • It gave me something to achieve. My mom was completely on board with me losing my excess weight, but she didn’t want me to become focused on achieving a certain weight. So, instead I set different goals for my swimming. For example, I’d set a goal to for swimming a certain number of laps without stopping or to beat a previous time. Having swimming helped me focus on something that I really enjoyed instead of lingering on what certain kids at school said about me.
  • It helped reduce repetitive motions. Swimming regularly certainly helped me get back to a healthy weight. But it was another physical change that helped boost my self-esteem. With autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, repetitive motions such as hand flapping, or in my case, hand clasping are common. But as this guide on aquatic therapy explains, exercise can help reduce those motions. I think swimming and getting other exercise helped me relax a little. I was less anxious and therefore needed to comfort myself with those motions less often. And while kids continued to make fun of me for it, I knew that I had been working hard and that my motions were less noticeable. That gave me a much-needed self-esteem boost.
  • It offered me a safe haven. Swimming has many benefits, and they aren’t all physical. In fact, for me, some of the most helpful side effects of swimming more often have been mental. In an article on the many different kinds of benefits of swimming, U.S. Masters Swimming lists a few of the mental benefits.

One, in particular, stands out for me: “Offers relaxation through the repetitive nature of movement.” Once I get in my rhythm many of my worries about school and being bullied drift away. The water has become somewhat of a safe haven for me. A place where I can just be, without worrying about what someone else might say about me. It has played an important role in helping me move past the negative feelings that being bullied caused me to have.

This is my story, but it isn’t necessarily unique. Many kids with Asperger’s Syndrome are made fun of or bullied by their peers. I want them to know that they shouldn’t lose hope. For me the pool has become my refuge. Find a similar place or activity that provides you the kind of comfort I get from swimming. It will help you make huge progress in getting over being bullied.


Kathleen Carter is a teen living with Asperger’s Syndrome. She enjoys educating her peers and others about AS. Recently, she began writing proudly about how her experiences differ from other people her age. She is so grateful to have the opportunity to write for EducatorLabs.