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Autism and Emotional Support Animals: What Is An ESA and What Are The Benefits of Having One?

Brooke Price Family

As my Autistic son grew I yearned for him to make a connection with somebody, anybody. He was nonverbal until he was almost 7 years old and was diagnosed with Severe Autism. It affected him greatly. Not only did it impact his life socially in every way possible; Autism also impacted him cognitively and behaviorally, and still does.


The first decade of his life was very daunting. He made connections with family, obviously, but it just wasn’t the same kind of connection that you see with “normal kids.” This all changed whenever we got him an Emotional Support Service Dog. The presence of the dog to comfort him made all the difference in the world for him. It was a long journey to get our dog to the place we needed him to be though. They had to bond and not only that he had to learn how to be an Emotional Support Dog.

What is an Emotional Support Service Animal?

Per ServiceDogCertification.org, “an Emotional Support Dog (ESD or ESA) is a pet or animal prescribed a licensed therapist to provide a health benefit for those that suffer from an emotional or mental disability. Emotional Support Dogs have rights that normal pets do not.

1). First, an ESA has access to almost all types of housing regardless of no-pet policies. ESA’s are protected under the Fair Housing Act so that they can live with their owners.
2). Second, an ESA can fly with their owner in the cabin of any airplane. They are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act for in cabin travel.
3). Third, under both laws, an ESA’s handler cannot be charged an additional fee for housing or airline access.”

Per reports in 2013, “HUD clarified that an Emotional Support Animal is not merely a pet: ‘An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, aids or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.’ However, HUD also stipulated that Emotional Support Animals ‘do not need training to ameliorate the effects of a person’s mental and emotional disabilities.’”

As far as what kind of animal you can choose as your ESA, there are no qualification requirements for determining whether a specific pet is appropriate. So, by default, “an Emotional Support Animal is basically a person’s pet that lives with that person and provides emotional support.” HUD does stipulate that housing providers are not required to provide accommodations if an animal is “destructive, poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or interferes with the ability of a facility to perform its intended purpose.” So, in practice, most people with proper documentation can have a pet live with them and serve in the role of Emotional Support Animal if the animal is not destructive, disruptive or dangerous at no cost to them (no pet deposit.)

Getting an Emotional Support Animal

We decided right off the bat that we were going to rescue our dog, train him to our needs and certify him ourselves, with the blessing of his therapist. You can do this with many different service dog websites. As stated above, an Emotional Support Dog doesn’t require specialized training in a sense, unlike a regular Service Dog that does require extensive training. However, an Emotional Support Animal must perform specific tasks to aid in their handler’s disability.

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Emotional Support Dog requirements are:

1). Required to be well behaved and under your control at all times.
2). Cannot cause harm or a disturbance either at home or on the airplane.

“Although it is not required by law, your Emotional Support Dog should also be spayed or neutered as this eliminates mating-related aggressive behaviors, and also has the added benefits of not having litters of puppies.” You can’t just get an Emotional Support Service Dog though, you must have a condition from a list of specific conditions to qualify.

If you suffer from one or more of the mental illnesses listed below, you may qualify for an Emotional Support Dog:
– Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
– Learning Disorders
– Autism
– General Anxiety Disorder
– Gender Identity
– Bipolar
– Cognitive disorders
– Depression
– Severe anxiety
– Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The Benefits of having an Emotional Support Animal

Per ct.counseling.org, “These benefits include calming and relaxing, lowering anxiety, alleviating loneliness, enhancing social engagement and interaction, normalizing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing pain, reducing stress, reducing depression and increasing pleasure.” Based on the results of studies, “it is plausible that living with an Emotional Support Animal may alleviate symptoms associated with a number of emotional and psychiatric disabilities.” HUD states, “Emotional Support Animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”

Finding our dog

The dog that I found was so cute and so little. We had decided from the start that a smaller dog would work better for our family. We were afraid that a larger dog would be too overwhelming for our son to begin with. So, we began our 2-hour long trip to pick up the new member of our family.

Boy did I have no clue what I was in for though! When we picked him up he had the worst behavior, was not house broken and loved to bark at everything that moved. Which really bothered our son as he has sensory processing disorder as a comorbid disorder to his Autism. I wasn’t ready to “throw in the towel though.” I wanted this to work for my son, so we began to train our dog to be there for our son when he needed him and to calm down a little bit. In the end we ended up with an irreplaceable member of our family that none of us can picture our lives without. We named him Dug after the dog in the movie “UP.” The name fit his personality perfectly once he came out of his shell. It took about a year to get him to the place where I could certify him. Now he is the perfect little ESA.

He comforts my son when he is overwhelmed and needs to be comforted by something that is not human. Sometimes human contact is just undesired by my son. However, comfort from an animal is always welcomed. Dug has also developed a keen habit of guarding the door and not allowing him to go near it, as he is known to wander. This was an added benefit that I never thought would develop but am forever grateful that it did. Little did I know that the little dog that climbed out of the kennel and ran across the parking lot to us was going to be the best asset in my son’s life, and in our life all our lives all these years later. If you are considering an ESA for your Autistic child I would recommend it as the benefits, in most cases, are unquestionable.