The Battle for Autism Service Dogs in Schools

Service Dog

Courtesy: Pete Markham

At a time when the heartbreak of wandering is ever present in the news, the battle for having autism service dogs in school rages on. Service dogs are known to calm anxious children, disrupt their tantrums, aid in making transitions and keep them safe from traffic and the hazards of wandering. Yet despite the existence of the national Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is no federal law permitting autism service dogs in schools and courts are being flooded with cases of parents fighting for their child’s right to have their canine helper in class.

Opposing schools contend that other children may be scared of the service dogs or be allergic to them. But ADA law states that fears and allergies are not valid reasons for refusing an assistance or service dog. Nor can schools demand information about the dog, though they can certainly request it. 

For the schools part, they cannot be required to oversee the dog and child during the school day. A child must take a public access test to prove he or she is ready to be fully responsible for a dog in public. Until such time, schools should be aware that the dog must be allowed in the school when the dog is working with the child under the supervision of the parent. Schools need to make appropriate accommodations for the child/canine team such as creating accessible space in the classroom and having outdoor trash receptacles for a child to attend to the dog’s needs.

Perhaps the worst argument made against autism therapy dogs is that they are merely pets or not truly service animals and that the school is capable of meeting the child’s needs already. A federal judge recently overruled the barring of a service dog from a Florida school, a clear vindication of the rights of children with severe autism under ADA law. And as for the school already meeting the child’s needs, there are very few schools following best practices for autism and none that walk the child safely to and from school each day.

In a very recent breakthrough on this issue, the Alabama state legislature has passed a bill allowing all types of service dogs, including autism therapy dogs, in schools across the state. Furthermore, aides assisting students with autism can now be trained to work with the child and the service dog as a team. 

Hopefully, other states will follow suit or an inspired lawmaker will take up this issue nationally. At a time when schools are seeing devastating budget cuts and the autism cases are spiraling upward, it only makes sense. As more schools allow autism service dogs, their fears will be allayed and the honoring of the rights of children with autism will prove beneficial to all