Point Pleasant Elementary School’s primary autism teacher Suz Zelenz-Dale had a few extra heads in her classroom June 7.
Jesse, Peter and Tobin — furry companions of Caring Canines — and their trainers visited the class of Kindergarten and first graders.
“It really helps them self-regulate, which pretty much means they have a calming effect,” Zelenz-Dale said.
She said for the remainder of the day, behavior was affected. Zelenz-Dale said as with any other classroom, there was a lot of excitement about the visitors. Most of the 13 kids were interested in petting the dogs.
“That was funny — they were very interested and excited to see the dogs,” Zelenz-Dale said. “Anyone who comes in, their attention is drawn to those people. There are some who have to go and say hi, introduce themselves.”
Some of the students’ Individualized Education Program, or IEP, goals were practiced, such as taking turns, social interaction with peers or using expressive language and choices.
Zelenz-Dale said as with a general education classroom, her autistic students have varying degrees of abilities. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal, and use a device to communicate. The students are incorporated into the general education population as much as their abilities will allow.
The trainers offered three stations which the students rotated through. Zelenz-Dale said keeping the class’ usual schedule of rotations through activity stations helped retain normalcy.
The dogs were lying down calmly for the interactions. Some dogs were lucky enough to get belly rubs.
“We’ve all heard the growing body of scientific research showing pets can make us happier and healthier, and those of with pets know this to be true,” Caring Canines Volunteer Coordinator Erin Bogan said.
“There is no better evidence for this than the incredible effect dogs can have on children with autism, the presence of a dog changes their whole dynamic — helping them learn skills in a fun way, decreasing ... anxiety, and so much more.”
Zelenz-Dale said the dogs are trained not to react to noises, such as a child yelling out. Calm personalities among the canines is a must.
Although this was the first visit of the therapy dogs to the autism classroom, Zelenz-Dale said the group does have experience with Alternate Curriculum Classes (ACC).
Zelenz-Dale said she also had Annapolis Music Therapy Services come into the classroom. She obtained a grant to cover much of the cost.
“Music therapy has lots of benefits with autism,” she said. “They do get to do music with the gen-ed classroom, but it’s not geared to their needs.”