New Jersey students with developmental disabilities such as autism can now bring service animals to class. New legislation allows the use of therapeutic animals for children who qualify for special education services.
Say “service animal” and most people think “seeing-eye dog,” but animals assist people with many different disabilities, such as brain injuries, post traumatic stress, or autism.
The service animals, usually dogs, perform an important function, said Leah Levine who heads the advocacy organization Animals at Work.
“The service animal keeps the child quiet, and keeps the child focused,” said Levine. “It’s a really important partnership. This partnership also goes home with the child when the child goes home — it’s that one constant in the child’s life.”
Dr. Tyrone Bentley is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Director of the Autism Center at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School in Newark. He said the animals also serve an important social function.
“Dogs tend to draw other people into the environment to interact with the individual who is the owner,” he said. “I think that can only lead to positive interactions and improvements in social skills.”
New Jersey school social worker Thomas Chemris, who has used service dogs in many classrooms, said their presence has been beneficial for all children in the school. The animals seem to calm the children down, and make them enjoy their day at school more, he said.
Advocates for the use of service animals say the new legislation is a great step in gaining acceptance for the expanded role of these animals. They say the well-trained dogs will not be a distraction in the classroom.