Should Rescues Refuse to Adopt to Families of Children with Autism?

Imagine that your family has made the decision to give a down-on-his-luck pooch a place in your home and in your hearts. Your nine-year-old son has expressed a desire to have a dog, which is a big step for him, and you know he is ready. You find a dog that seems like a good fit: he’s a sad-eyed, middle-aged mixed breed that has been with the rescue for over a year. You fill out the application and try to contain your excitement while you wait for a response. But when the reply comes, the answer is an immediate no – you won’t be permitted to adopt that dog, or any dog. As you continue to read, tears well in your eyes.

The rescue has turned you down – won’t even speak with you further. Why?

Because your nine-year-old is on the autism spectrum.

This may sound impossible, but for Erin and Mike Doan of Listowel, Ontario, it recently became their reality when they submitted an application to Kismutt Rescue in St. Marys, Ontario. The parents put all of their cards on the table – they even requested a meeting with rescue staff, hoping to head off any concerns. The rescue refused, stating that Henry’s autism made their family an unsafe home for a dog. The Doans shared their story, and one of Kismutt Rescue’s leaders responded publicly, doubling down on the rescue’s refusal. The story exploded in the media worldwide.

Was this a case of discrimination, or do children with autism really present more of a danger to their potential fur-siblings than neuro-typical children?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is usually diagnosed in young children but can start to appear as early as infancy. ASD is marked by difficulties with social interactions and communication, as well as restrictive, repetitive behaviors and interests, and the severity of symptoms can vary greatly. Notably, neither aggression nor a propensity toward violence, are listed as symptoms of ASD in diagnostic manuals like the DSM-V.

Kismutt Rescue’s main concern seems to be related to what are referred to as “meltdowns”: outbursts sometimes seen in children with autism, often occurring when they experience unexpected change or become overstimulated by sensory input. Meltdowns can (but do not always) involve zoning out, performing repetitive behaviors (hand flapping and rocking are common), crying, screaming, hitting or stomping. It’s important to realize that not all children on the spectrum experience meltdowns, and not all children who do experience meltdowns become outwardly violent as a result. It’s important to treat children who are on the autism spectrum, and their families, as the individuals that they are.

There is currently no scientific evidence that children on the spectrum are more likely to be aggressive or violent toward pets. However, there is scientific evidence of the positive effects that pets can have in the lives of children with autism!

When in the presence of companion animals, children with autism have been shown to display more pro-social behavior, and are more likely to approach other children to initiate contact. They show more positive afsilva confect (smiling and laughing) and less negative affect (frowning or crying). Children have even been shown to be more compliant with requests from adults when a dog is simply present in the room with them!

If there is no proof that children with ASD are more dangerous to companion animals, and pets are proven to be helpful in encouraging socialization and compliance, what could possibly be the reason for refusing to adopt a homeless dog to a family whose child(ren) have autism? Old-fashioned prejudice seems to be the unfortunate answer. We in the rescue community can do much better than this. Everyone loses when rescues discriminate -- the dogs who miss out on amazing homes, and the families who are prepared to love them but walk away disappointed.

For Our Underdogs Rescue will NEVER discriminate against a potential adopter for any neurodevelopmental difference or medical diagnosis.


Meet Reece!

Reese is a sweet lap girl who needs a little patience with house training. She is a fast learner, people pleaser, and a sucker for walks! She was once in a car accident while in her crate, so she is learning that her crate is her safe place.

Reece is okay with other dogs, but prefers to be the center of attention. She is fine with children and loves treats! If you are interested in fostering or adopting Reece, please follow the instructions on her Adoptables page!

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