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A short public service message

It’s the damnedest thing: when I visit the website of discount store Winners, I find nothing in its “In the News” section or in its “In the Community” section about an Edmonton outlet’s clumsy mistreatment of an autistic child. The store’s behaviour certainly counts as interaction with the community, and has certainly made news. International headlines, even!

Young Emily Ainsworth travels with an “autism service dog” named Levi. Emily’s mother points out that service animals are “permitted in public under human rights legislation”, which is a very slight simplification. Alberta law actually specifies [PDF] that retailers cannot discriminate against customers on the basis of “physical reliance on a guide dog [or] service dog”; there is no Alberta Human Rights Commission caselaw on autism service animals.

But the likely reason for this is that Emily would certainly win any such case in a resounding slam-dunk. Most people working in retail jobs are probably vaguely familiar with the functions performed by guide dogs for the blind, and would know better than to challenge one. It may be somewhat natural, however, for a cute, physically well child accompanied by a dog to arouse skepticism—even though certified service dogs like Levi have special identifying vests and papers that can be produced on request.

So it would probably help prevent embarrassments if people realized that autism dogs are not just present for emotional support. Autistic children are impulsive, and can’t always interpret signs and orders; an autism dog is trained to physically protect them. A service dog training facility in Lynden, Ont., explains it this way:

One of the key roles of ADS service dogs is to provide safety outside of the home, in public settings and at school. The service dog acts as a physical anchor for the child with autism. A tether made of nylon webbing joins the service dog and child. The webbing is connected around the child’s waist, like a belt, and links up to a ring on the dog’s service dog jacket. ADS trains the service dogs to respond to commands given by the caregiver or educator. The service dog is specially trained to stop on command. As a result this prevents the child from entering into potentially dangerous situations (i.e. roadways, parking lots, bodies of water, ravines, etc.) and gives the caregiver or educator the much needed time to intervene and direct the child back onto the safer path. The service dog also prevents the child from wandering away from the family while out in public settings.

In short, autism service dogs are not much different in principle from guide dogs for the blind, and provide for personal independence in a closely analogous way. If you’re a retail clerk, host, receptionist, or proprietor, you should be aware of this. If only for your own good.