One month ago, my son Cooper’s service dog arrived. His name is Diesel and he is a 92-pound black lab with puppy eyes that track my son’s levels of regulation and panic attacks with laser focus. The addition of a highly trained dog to the family has been an immense relief for all of us, but the bonding process has been a little up and down. One of the biggest obstacles to appropriate bonding during those first 30-days was the fact that his elementary school wouldn’t allow the dog to enter, which is in fact, against the federal law.
Among other advocacy approaches, my husband and I wrote a letter outlining why our son had a right to have the service dog at school, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a long month, and consulting with lawyers, the superintendent called to say that the school was in fact obligated under the law to allow Diesel to accompany Cooper due to his disability of Autism. Despite this “win,” we were already emotionally worn to the bone after his kindergarten year when he was denied an IEP and he couldn’t access virtual instruction. This year, after missed days due to panic attacks and school resistance, we decided to un-enroll him from public school and try a Montessori program. He started today with excitement bubbling over and the promise that his dog will be by his side next week.
We wanted to share with you an anonymized version of the letter we used to advocate for the service dog, as it may be helpful for advocating for other types of accommodations your PDA child needs to access school. (Especially the second-to-last paragraph). Please feel free to lift any text that feels helpful and relevant!
We are writing to request that our son, Cooper, who attends first grade at Anonymous Elementary, be allowed to bring his service dog with him to school. We have been communicating with the principal about this, and she said that we needed to communicate our request to you in writing, as you would be consulting with the school district’s attorney.
Cooper has been diagnosed as a child with autism, but, as you likely know, autism manifests in countless ways. Cooper has the Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) expression of Autism. His case is multifaceted, but a primary element is that his threat response is extremely sensitive and triggered constantly by objectively non-threatening situations. Therefore, in order to access and engage in normal childhood activities without the risk of behavioral dysregulation and other harmful effects, he must constantly override his threat response. This is extremely taxing on his nervous system, and he suffers extreme panic attacks when his nervous system is not accommodated and becomes overwhelmed. Moreover, if he is pressed through the panic attacks without accommodations, his system shuts down more completely, and he loses the ability to eat and communicate.
Cooper’s condition is also invisible most of the time (he often appears to be “normal”), which frequently prompts misunderstanding by adults who assume that he is fine and that accommodations are not needed. Countless adults with Cooper’s profile of autism have affirmed that accommodations are indeed necessary, and especially in school settings, where social and educational demands are ubiquitous, and their nervous systems must continuously battle internally to present calm externally. In fact, without reasonable accommodations, the school dynamic can become traumatic to the extent that many children with PDA have lost the ability to attend school altogether.
As his parents, we are in a unique position to understand that Cooper will need some accommodations to learn and grow in a healthy way. He is quite smart, social and fun-loving, and we share your desire to see him thrive. And these are among the reasons that we sought out a service dog for him. The dog was professionally trained for 18 months to specifically assist with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (the best approximation of Cooper’s autism profile). Among other things, the dog is specifically trained to anticipate and prevent Cooper’s autism-driven panic attacks, or if that’s not feasible, respond to and end them quickly.
We have already seen dramatic successes since the dog arrived just two weeks ago. Cooper has done things he had not been able to do for years, including eating out at a restaurant, visiting a shopping mall, and accompanying us on trips to the grocery store, and with the dog at his side he has been able to stay regulated throughout these and other excursions. This is truly remarkable for him, and for our family.
Furthermore, as the trainers explained to us, the benefits of the dog will increase as he and Cooper continue to consistently spend time together, and their mutual understanding of each other develops. However, the contrary is also true. The effectiveness of Cooper’s highly trained service dog diminishes every day he is not allowed to interact with and control the dog in public settings. To be most effective, the dog must be at Cooper’s side 24 hours a day, and if seven of the waking hours are lost every school day, this significantly reduces the short- and long-term impact of the dog on Cooper.
Of course, we understand that the arrival of Cooper’s service dog would impact the classroom dynamic and that the dog would need to be under Cooper’s control at all times. We are therefore more than happy to "ease" into a transition, and to have the dog attend for just an hour or two a day to begin. During that transition, one of us could be there as a secondary handler. We would suggest that we then slowly add hours for the service dog’s attendance while reducing our participation, until all involved settle into a routine. We are flexible in how this evolves, and open to suggestions from you or school personnel.
Finally, and in reference to your consultation with the school district’s attorney, please note that under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Cooper is clearly an individual with a disability who is entitled to reasonable accommodations that are needed for him to access the services that are available to non-disabled persons. In that way, he is no different from a child who is visually impaired to the extent that they require the support of a seeing-eye dog. Importantly, the ADA requires that the preferences of a person with a disability are to be honored unless doing so would place a fundamental burden on the public agency or entity in question. To be clear, we are not asserting that Cooper requires the support of a service dog as part of the district’s duty to provide special education under the IDEA. Whether or not he needs special education is entirely irrelevant to his rights under the ADA.
We hope that this information about Cooper, his disability, his service dog, and the ADA are helpful. We continue to build positive relationships with Anonymous personnel, and would like to do the same throughout the school district. With that in mind, we are requesting a conversation with you and Anonymous personnel to determine how best to work this out for all involved.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of our requests.
Mr. and Mrs. Anonymous