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Lending a paw

Justin with 'Grizzly'

Dogs help the autistic come out of their shell

October 30, 1997
Web posted at: 10:58 a.m. EST (1558 GMT)

From Correspondent Melissa Sanders

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- A friendly dog named Grizzly may be just the thing to help Justin take a small step out of his private world.

Justin is afflicted with autism, a widely misunderstood neurological disorder that affects brain function and typically appears during the first three years of life. An autistic person appears to be daydreaming or acting irrationally, with little or no recognition of those around him.

Dogs help the autistic come out of their shell
icon 2 min. VXtreme video

That's where Grizzly comes in. The German shepherd is part of an experiment to see if "animal-assisted therapy" can bridge the communication gap with Justin and other clients at TURN Community Services in Salt Lake City.

Because of their developmental disabilities, including mental retardation and autism, Justin and the others don't understand why they need to communicate, explains behavioral specialist Sherrie Lewis-Parkin.
(icon 97K/9 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

In one-on-one human contact, talking gets in the way, says Grizzly's owner, Lana Davis. Animals, on the other hand, "can just be there."
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Justin and 'Grizzly'

Breakthroughs can happen but take time, Davis says.
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In his first therapy session with Grizzly, Justin stepped on the dog's paw. By the eighth session, weeks later, Justin appeared far less agitated, even allowing Grizzly to eat food out of his hand.

Animals make it easier for behavioral change to occur, says project assistant Judy Scheer.
(icon79K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

National agencies, such as the Delta Society, will evaluate animals like Grizzly, then help train and certify them, and their handlers, for this sort of work.

"Animals play an important part in our lives," Davis says. They "help people connect with other people."

As far as Justin and the others are concerned, the behavioral changes may be subtle, but they are also profound.


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