LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Animal lover and trainer Julie Shaw wants you to meet Charlie, a 10-week-old Australian Labradoodle bred for calmness — not because he’s so cute and cuddly, which is a bonus, but because it will help raise awareness about autism.
Shaw, director and owner of Lafayette-based Stepping Stone Animal Training and Behavior Modification, is training Charlie to be a service dog for Isaac Schultz, a 7-year-old Richmond boy on the autism spectrum.
“We need these kids in our communities because they see the world differently and they are going to help us make the world better,” she said. “But if we don’t help them when they’re children, how are they going to get there?”
The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder has risen over time. For instance, in 2000 the prevalence rate was 6.7 per 1,000 children or 1 in 150 and by 2010 it was 14.7 per 1,000 children or 1 in 68, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But why does Shaw want you to meet Charlie?
Interacting with the public will help socialize Charlie and expose him to the many people and places he might encounter as a service dog. Shaw plans to have Charlie out and about all over Greater Lafayette at parks, schools, and inside businesses — all places he’ll be trained to go with Isaac.
Service dogs are trained to do work or perform tasks for the disabled, such as guiding the blind, alerting the deaf or calming a person who has post-traumatic stress disorder. There are no certification or registration requirements, however, specified by the American with Disabilities Act.
The animals are typically trained by state contractors or private companies, such as Paws with a Cause, said Ancel Montenelli, bilingual ADA technical assistance specialist with the Great Lakes ADA Center.
But owners also can train service dogs, he said.
Krista Schultz, Isaac’s mother, said she discovered information about service dogs for autism online.
“I realized that this is something that would really help our son,” Schultz said. “He has a high level of anxiety.”
When researching costs and wait lists for service animal training, Krista said she became discouraged. She found wait lists as long as three to five years and costs ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.
With the support of their community, however, the Schultz family raised $15,000 to pay for Charlie’s training.
Schultz explained that every child on the spectrum experiences different symptoms. Isaac doesn’t sleep well at night, repeats behaviors, and is overstimulated by loud noises, big crowds and bright lights.
Sometimes the over-stimulation sends him into a “meltdown,” in which he loses emotional control, cries, yells and lays on the floor.
Shaw, a veterinary technician specialist in behavior, said she will train Charlie to lay on top of Isaac when he has a meltdown.
“The pressure is calming to them,” she said. “We don’t know why.”
The overall goal is to train Charlie to recognize Isaac’s symptoms, act as a diversion and calm him when necessary.
“The comfort that comes from these animals is amazing,” Schultz said.
Charlie also will help alleviate stress, build Isaac’s confidence and act as a social bridge, helping him interact with other children, Shaw said.
She hopes he will be ready in six to nine months — an ambitious goal, she said.
Typically, dogs are placed in the home between 18 months and 3 years old. They have to be ready to go unnoticed in public places.
“The goal is to get him into the home and helping Isaac as soon as possible,” she said.