Program helps improve socialization skills

By Elyssa Parnell

May 12, 2014

NEWBERRY — A dog is man’s best friend, that’s how the saying goes. Taking it one step farther with her program, Pawsitive Awareness Inc. is Sarah Brickley, occupational therapist at Newberry County Memorial Hospital.

Brickley is a registered occupational therapist and license to practice in South Carolina. She has over 30 years of experience with 20 years in pediatrics, treating children and has worked for NCMH for 13 years.

Brickley’s program Pawsitive Awareness is an organization that enhances the lives of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by engaging them in a structured dog obedience training class. The class helps to enhance the children’s socialization skills as well as build or strengthen a bond with their pet.

The idea for the program, Brickley said came from working with children with Autism, Asperger’s and sensory processing disorders. The parents frequently expressed concern that their children needed help socializing with others.

With Brickley’s work as an occupational therapist, she said the cases of autism continues to rise. “It’s the majority of our caseload,” she said.

Working in pediatrics, Brickley said she works with those with low to high functioning autism, all of them having difficulty socializing with others.

“They don’t know if you’re telling a joke, using sarcasm, or teasing,” Brickley said.

Although Brickley said those with autism could join organizations such as scouts or even sports teams, they’re missing the interaction of simply knowing how to go up and say hello or know when someone tells them a joke.

“Most will stay on the outside of the group,” Brickley said.

Following retirement, Brickley said that because she has a love of dogs, she always thought she would do something with service dogs, but the process could be a little tricky. The example Brickley gave was that she may work with three dogs, only to complete the process, sometimes lasting three years, just to discover only one of the dogs would be qualified to be a service dog.

Brickley has two dogs of her own, Lizzie, a rescue Collie, and Molly, a yellow lab and golden retriever mix. Lizzie is short for Elizabeth Arden, while Molly, she said stands for Marilyn Monroe.

Animal research

Research Brickley said has shown that the use of companion dogs with special needs children decreases anxiety around social interactions, and creates a social bridge for children who are often unsure as to how they should interact with their peers.

The pilot program for Pawsitive Awareness took place in 2012 at the PetSmart in Harbison. Rhonda Baird, trainer at PetSmart, along with Bickley worked with four children. They began with a basic introduction with the dogs and their owners, followed by group activities.

The group activities started with the children side by side with the others, working on the same tasks, yet not working together, Brickley said, which is called parallel play. They slowly progressed to teamwork activities, even with one child leading the others in basic commands with the dogs.

By the end of their second session, Brickley said they were less intimidated by social interactions, and the children were each building unique bonds with their pets.

“If parents choose, they can go online and get higher level training and seek therapy status so the dogs can go with the children in public,” Brickley said.

Pawsitive Awareness Inc.

Pawsitive Awareness, Inc. officially became a business in January 2013. Prior to acceptance in the class, Brickley said she typically makes a home visit to evaluate whether she thinks the program is something that would be beneficial for the child.

Brickley said that two to four children is what would typically make up a class for the program, but they could do it with just one child if needed.

Because Brickley works with children from Newberry, as well as Laurens, Greenwood, Lexington and Irmo, the classes are held at a middle ground of the PetSmart in Harbison, once a week for an hour for six weeks.

Brickley said the class goals for those that participate include:

• Learn to positively interact with their dog and to pay attention to their work/dog

• Learn to positively interact with their peers and get along with others

• Develop better listening skills and improve direction following

• To ask for assistance when needed and to teach their pet basic obedience skills and manners

“I just want to let people know that there are alternative therapies to help with socialization tool with autism,” Brickley said.

For more information about Pawsitive Awareness and how it could impact someone close to you, Brickley can be reached at 567-297-0765.