Service Dogs Comfort Autistic Kids Struggling To Cope As Coronavirus Upends Daily Routines

People are struggling to adjust as the novel coronavirus spreads around the world, upending daily routines. But the struggle is especially acute for children with autism, many of whom find special comfort in routine activities.

In the face of such challenges, some families are relying on autism service dogs to help their children navigate these challenging times. One of those children is 13-year-old Alex Millman, who was used to meeting his service dog, Clancy, at the bus stop every day after school.

But coronavirus school closures have deprived Alex and Clancy of this comforting ritual. “So we’re still giving the afternoon snack, even though nobody is actually going anywhere,” said Alex’s mom Sandi, who is trying maintain a sense of normalcy by recreating the bus stop routine every day (during which Alex feeds Clancy a treat), albeit from inside their home.

Before Clancy entered their lives, Sandi and Alex were living in self-isolation — years before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19. Before Clancy entered their lives, Alex was constantly wandering off, leaving his mother wary of ever leaving the house lest Alex suddenly go missing.

“We’d have been social distancing for 13 years now without a faithful furry friend to keep Alex safe,” Sandi Millman told lohud. That changed, though, when the family finally got a service dog, whose steadying presence helped the boy feel connected and calm. “It’s just overall great to have a dog in the house,” Sandi said. “It’s not like Clancy empties the dishwasher or anything, but we all love him — we’re happy to have him.”

Clancy was trained by BluePath Service Dogs, a New York-based nonprofit organization that provides trained service dogs for autistic children living across the United States.

“Every single person right now has a routine that’s been interrupted by the coronavirus, but for children with autism, who really thrive on routine, this is exponentially more challenging,” said Michelle Brier, the company’s VP of marketing and development.

The coronavirus has even upended daily routines for the dogs, who are used to keeping their charges safe on the streets. “Whereas one of the primary roles of our service dogs is specifically to help kids stay safe when they’re out in public, they’re really sort of switching the focus to the support that they’re providing in the home,” said Brier.

Meanwhile, Chester — another BluePath autism service dog — is helping 20-year-old Kaitlin Flaherty process her growing coronavirus anxiety. “And the dog has definitely been a calming influence, especially since she’s home doing distance learning with school,” said Kaitlin’s mother, Nancy Flaherty.

Having Chester around has also helped Nancy, who can finally relax knowing Chester is trained to keep her daughter out of harm’s way. “It definitely allows families and the person with autism to be more active and do more things,” said Flaherty. “You know, not be a prisoner of the home.”

Now that the virus has made us all prisoners of home, Chester has shifted his focus towards lifting Kaitlin’s spirits. According to Nancy, the dog is suddenly acting very silly, like he’s determined to keep her daughter laughing through the quarantine. “It was really just so heart-warming to see her laugh and giggle when all of this is happening,” said Nancy, who suspects Kaitlin have otherwise been very stressed by this massive disruption to her routine.

How has your dog helped you and your family cope with COVID-19? Let us know in the comments!

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J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.
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