Like seeing-eye dogs for the blind, trained dogs are now being used to help autistic children deal with their disabilities. But some schools want to keep the animals out–and families are fighting back.

Two autistic elementary school students recently won court orders in Illinois allowing their dogs to accompany them to school. Their lawsuits follow others in California and Pennsylvania over schools’ refusal to allow dogs that parents say calm their children, ease transitions, and even keep the kids from running into traffic.

At issue is whether the dogs are true “service dogs”–essential to managing a disability–or simply companions that provide comfort.

School districts say they are not discriminating, just drawing the line to protect the safety and health of other students who might be allergic or scared of dogs.

“The school district has 650 students, not just one. So we have to balance,” said Brandon Wright, attorney for the Villa Grove district in central Illinois, which objected to 6-year-old Kaleb Drew’s plan to bring his yellow Labrador retriever, Chewey, to school.

Kaleb’s family won a judge’s order in July allowing the dog to come to class until a trial, set to start Nov. 10. So when Kaleb started his first full day of first grade last month, Chewey was by his side.

Service dogs have long been used by the blind, but training them to help those with autism is relatively new. While there’s little research on how these animals affect autistic children, families like Kaleb’s say they have seen marked improvement. And the support group Autism Speaks includes a list of dog-training groups among resources on its web site.

Autism is a developmental disorder that involves behaviors such as poor eye contact, trouble communicating, and repetitive movements such as rocking or hand-flapping. Those with the disorder are prone to outbursts and might have trouble with changes in their environment.

The dogs are trained to be a calming influence, providing a constant between home, school, and other new places. Sometimes, as in Kaleb’s case, the dogs are tethered to children to prevent them from running off in dangerous situations.


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