Covid-19 has meant that we are all now experiencing to one degree or another, some very sudden changes to our routines as well as different ways of learning and working. 

This week, it’s Autism Awareness Week and for many of the families we support through our Autism Assistance Dogs and Family Dog services, the incredibly special bond they share with their dog is even more pronounced and essential.

For a child with autism, upsetting a regular routine can be incredibly stressful and for their parents, finding new ways to structure in the day will be a significant challenge. All of this, coupled with anxiety about what’s going on in the world right now, is likely to fuel a very sharp rise in stress levels for everyone.

The changes at home may mean your dog – who also likes routine – is feeling a little confused, too. So, where you can, maintaining as much structure for them as possible will help. You can also use these regular points in the day to provide some positive focus for an autistic child. 

The use of social stories and visual timetables, often used in the classroom and at home for children with autism, can help everyone in the family see the routine around caring for the dog.

Doing this could also provide some great solutions to help support families and also spread a bit of genuine joy and happiness. 

Dogs can provide a calming influence

Many of the families we work with say that the simple act of sitting quietly and stroking their dog or snuggling up on the sofa together to watch a film can be extremely beneficial. Activities such as these help to bring a dose of calm to the pressure of daily life and dogs do love a snuggle! Dogs are also able to deliver ‘head rests’; an incredibly soothing and powerful action which applies deep pressure in the lap of an anxious child.

Breakfast – the best way to start the day

In the morning, children can also help prepare the dog’s breakfast. There are some great interactive puzzle games that can make breakfast-time more exciting and last a bit longer. It’s also a great opportunity to encourage children to eat their own breakfast!

The same goes for things such as teeth cleaning and hair brushing.  Children can help clean their dog’s teeth with special canine toothpaste and also be involved in brushing/grooming the dog. This will encourage them to clean their own teeth (with human toothpaste!) and brush their own hair, too.

Spend time outdoors … walkies!

Many parents find the daily dog walk a time to find a bit of calm which helps them cope better with supporting the family. And getting out for a dog walk each day can be a great opportunity for all the family to get a dose of fresh air.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while we’re currently restricted to one form of exercise per day, if there are two parents in the house, you may be able to split your dog walking duties to enable you both to take the dog out. Head-clearing for each parent and two walks for the dog – an all round winner!

Many families we work with choose to use a double-handled lead (or dual lead). This piece of equipment allows a parent and child to lead walk their dog at the same time. As well as allowing an adult to give guidance to their dog, the dual-handle also allows the child to be involved; providing a calming focus and helping them feel more confident in an outdoor space.

Garden fun for all the family

And for those days when no-one wants to go out no matter how much you try to encourage it, a dog-centred game or activity in the garden might just take the pressure off.

Our wonderful trainers have put together some great brain games that you can play with your dog. They are available on our website and are guaranteed to deliver plenty of enrichment and fun.

Alternatively, spending 10 minutes in the garden with your dog, playing a ball game or the very popular ‘hide-the-treat’ challenge may just help reduce stress and provide a few smiles and giggles. These games will also mentally and physically tire out your dog and help you enjoy some time together. Make sure you keep brain game activities short and sweet – your dog is amazing but can only cope with so much!

You could even ask your dog to select an activity for you to do as a family.  Yes, really!

Write down a couple of activities you can do as a family on two separate cards. For example, one card could say ‘go for a walk’ and the other could say ‘play a game’. Encourage your dog to ‘choose’ the activity – most dogs will be inquisitive enough to come and investigate and ‘select’ an activity by sniffing at the piece of paper.

Dog down time

While our dogs are no doubt going to enjoy all the extra attention that having us around more brings, it’s essential that they get some well-earned down time. Dogs need an average of 12 – 16 hours of sleep a day, so allowing your dog to have regular, undisturbed time in a quiet, safe space away from children is really important.

Help us support more families with a child with autism.