For Student With Autism, Having Service Animal in School Is 'Lifesaver'

Service animals in schools can foster learning, but pushback from districts is not uncommon.

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Kaleb Drew, 6, and his autism service dog, Chewey, wait to be taken out of the car after Kaleb's first day of school in Villa Grove, Ill.

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Kaleb Drew, a first-grader with autism with severe speech and developmental delays in central Illinois, recently received some good news from a county judge: His best friend, Chewey, a 70-pound yellow Labrador retriever, who has been his constant companion in school since August, would be allowed to continue to accompany him to school every day.

Chewey is an autism service dog trained by Autism Service Dogs of America, an organization outside of Portland, Ore., that prepares dogs to live with children who have autism. The dogs are trained to increase the child's mobility and socialization and to provide a calming influence that allows the child to make greater academic progress in school.

For Kaleb, Chewey is his lifeline and his guardian angel, says his mom, Nichelle. After receiving the dog last spring, Kaleb has had fewer emotional outbursts, he is better able to focus and transition from one activity to another during class, and he does not try to run away from people—which has in the past resulted in dangerous situations in the school parking lot—since Chewey is tethered to him and acts as a physical restraint. However, if the Villa Grove school district had its way, Kaleb would have to do without Chewey at school. District officials argued in court earlier this month that the dog is not a true service animal and does not perform tasks that benefit Kaleb academically.

Margie Wakelin, an attorney who works with the Chicago-based Equip for Equality and who represented the Drew family, says that service animals are becoming more common as more is learned about the benefits that they can offer in assisting people with a range of mental disabilities—not just autism. "The animals allow the person to better segue into relating with other people," she says.

When dealing with service animals, a common concern raised by school districts is balancing the needs of the student with autism with other children who might have allergies or fear the dog. But experts say that keeping the dogs clean and adjusting class and recess schedules can usually quell any allergy issues, and once other children see that the service animal is very calm and predictable, they welcome the dog wholeheartedly.

Still, Wakelin admits that not many people know the proper etiquette for being around service animals, and it's important for families to listen to the concerns school officials have and to think creatively about how to solve them. Though many states, like Illinois, have laws that allow service animals to be used in schools, that doesn't mean there won't be hiccups along the way.

Fortunately, if you're a parent thinking about using a service animal for your child, there is plenty of guidance on the best ways to maximize your chances of reaching a mutual agreement with the district without resorting to a lawsuit. Advice on the legal aspects of service animals can be found on the Psychiatric Service Dog Society's website.

And when it comes time to find a service animal, you'll want to ask for advice: "In choosing a training organization, talk to all the people around you, especially other parents who have been in similar situations," says Nichelle Drew. "But no matter what anybody else tells you, remember that you know your child the best."

Priscilla Taylor, the founder and executive director at ASDA, says there are many agencies around the country that train dogs to assist people with disabilities that include schizophrenia, agoraphobia (fear of open or public places), and dissociative identity disorder (characterized by conflicting states of mind), but few that specialize in autism. The cost of the dogs, which must undergo years of training and tests before they can go home with a family, can range from free (if the organization is supported by wealthy donors) to $30,000. The Drew family used community fundraising to pay for Chewey, who cost $13,500. Some other training agencies include 4 Paws for Ability in Ohio and Canine Companions for Independence in California.