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Demand soars for adults in need of autism service dogs

With rising demand, Autism Dog Services now offers service dogs for adults living with autism and other related disorders throughout southwestern Ontario
Mitchell with his autism assistance dog, Sasha.

As more and more adults are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the demand for assistance dogs continues to rise.

With a previous focus on training dogs to work with ASD in children and adolescents, Autism Dog Services, has recently launched its program to now include individuals aged 18+.

Based in Brantford, Autism Dog Services provides service dogs for people and families living with autism and other related disorders throughout southwestern Ontario.

“Offering services to adults, this is a big step forward for us,” said Vicky Spadoni, executive director of Autism Dog Services.

“Before this, I remember thinking, we can’t go on turning adults down just because they’ve only recently been diagnosed. They’ve probably felt that they’ve had an issue all their lives, and maybe it’s taken this long for them to find the courage to get a diagnosis.”

With a mission to train, place and support people with service dogs that bring companionship and independence, Autism Service Dogs offers a variety of benefits that include safety, friendship, and behavioural support.

According to the organization, research shows that people diagnosed with autism in adulthood are nearly three times more likely than children to experience psychiatric conditions.

Spadoni says the growing demand reflects a more general awareness and willingness to talk about mental health challenges.

“People are more transparent about their mental health than they used to be, which is a good thing. It’s no longer swept under the carpet,” she said.

“But it does mean that the waiting lists for autism assistance dogs, and the pressures on organizations like ours, are greater than ever before.”

Helping ASD adults move from ‘surviving to thriving’ is the theme of this year’s World Autism Awareness Day coming up on April 2.

“With the demand, phone calls, and inquiries we have been receiving, people are being diagnosed later in life. It’s becoming more and more prevalent,” Spadoni said.

"It’s a harsh reality from what they may have known for a long time. And now the reality sets in. Then they reach out asking what can you do to help me?”

Autism Dog Services has a service territory that includes London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, Centre Wellington, Toronto, North York, Hamilton and Niagara.  

“It is a big area, and the demand is so great. Adding adults to our roster, it’s huge,” Spadoni said.  

Currently, the number one recruitment drive is for more ‘puppy raisers’.

“The highest and significant quantity of puppy raisers for our program are from the Guelph and Centre Wellington area,” Spadoni said.

“Given the fact that the Ontario Veterinary College is in Guelph, and the university is there, we have been able to bring on new volunteer supports from outlying areas too including Mount Forest, Drayton and Elora.”

Spadoni says more offers are coming in from puppy breeders than ever before.

“But unfortunately, if we don’t have the puppy raiser infrastructure, I been having to turn down puppies which is really significant. We want to be able to say yes to all of these puppies,” she said.

Autism Service Dogs offers puppy training classes in Guelph, Cambridge, Brantford, and Ancaster.

“These are our catchment areas, so someone from Mount Forest can come to Guelph for a class,” Spadoni said.

"In the service dog training school world, we are a small pea in a big pod. But I am proud that we have recognized the need to service adults with developmental disorders and that we can provide service dogs to support their living.”

Spadoni says autism assistance dogs can save lives.

“It really comes down to creating independence and responsibility, and ultimately, these dogs become best friends,” Spadoni said.

“Everybody needs a hug. And an autism assistance dog can provide that hug.”

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Barbara Latkowski

About the Author: Barbara Latkowski

Barbara graduated with a Masters degree in Journalism from Western University and has covered politics, arts and entertainment, health, education, sports, courts, social justice, and issues that matter to the community
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