It all began with a birthday party. A mom called PAWS for People with a request for a therapy team to attend her three-year-old’s birthday party. Because PAWS doesn’t do entertainment, the first response was “Sorry, but no thank you.” But, when the mom told Lynne Robinson, executive director of PAWS, that the child had autism and that most of the party’s guests were also autistic, the picture changed. Three therapy teams attended with 3 dogs: small, medium and large. The results were amazing: many of the children who had previously been afraid of dogs, ended up petting, hugging and totally loving the dogs. This seemingly inauspicious event marked the start of the PAWS Autism Initiative that has been enormously successful.
Parents from the party began calling for therapy teams to help their children and it soon became obvious that PAWS was filling a growing need in the community. Susan Pfadt, a PAWS member and an experienced professional in developmental disabilities, helped write the training that all PAWS teams must complete in order to work with children with Autism. Autism presents itself differently in each child and each child’s needs are unique. However, all children diagnosed with Autism have significant problems with communications and social interaction. Some have difficulties with self-stimulation repetitive behaviors that interfere with their ability to interact with others. That’s why specialized training is so critical.
Today, 8 PAWS therapy teams offer services by Special Request as well as visit the Brennan School, Newark, DE, where those most severely affected go to school. Here, Pfadt evaluates each child to identify his or her specific needs; she then develops individual protocols so that the PAWS teams are equipped to personalize their interactions in each classroom.
The results speak for themselves: At the school, a uncommunicative child who only spoke in phrases began using the dog’s name, remembering it and talking regularly to him. In another case, a PAWS team is helping a 12-year-old child who is terrified of animals. They use a park setting to stage “chance” meetings of this boy and the therapy dog. By walking by at a distance, then coming a little closer, and a little closer; by engaging the child in “training” the dog by giving hand commands for sit, down, etc.; by allowing this child to control how close the team gets, how fast they walk, what tricks they do, he has become more comfortable with the dog being closer. And, he’s becoming less afraid.
“It has been so gratifying to see how well these children respond to our therapy dogs and cats,” says Stephanie Barry, director, PAWS Autism Initiative. “When you see a child who has been previously unresponsive, uncommunicative and disinterested, open up and begin to smile, speak and interact with a therapy dog, it takes your breath away.”
About PAWS for People
PAWS for People (Pet Assisted Visitation Volunteer Services) is a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides one-on-one pet visitation/therapy services to individuals and facilities throughout Delaware and parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The PAWS Autism Initiative is an extension of the core program, with specially trained and certified therapy teams who work with children with Autism.
For more information on the PAWS for People Autism Initiative and the other services offered, call (302) 351-5622 or go to www.pawsforpeople.org.
Susan Moran is a PAWS team member and volunteer publicist for PAWS for People in Newark, Delaware. This article first appeared in Inside Newark’s July issue.