Man’s best friend: The Blind Love of dogs

Although the documentary movie, Blind Love, focuses on Auschwitz, viewers at the showing of the film hosted by the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre left with positive feelings. The documentary relates how a group of blind or partially sighted people was able to participate in the annual March of the Living, which includes a symbolic walk from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Poland.

The ‘feel good’ element came from the depiction of the support dogs that went along on the trip. These dogs were core to allowing this group to participate in an event that would otherwise have seemed completely beyond their reach.

The screening of the movie was followed by a panel discussion with representatives from local organisations that train and provide support dogs, including dogs to assist people with autism.

Autism in our community

We often hear about cases of autism in our community and, according to many reports, “Statistics from health organisations suggest that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses are on the rise. This doesn’t necessarily mean that autism itself is becoming more common…; it could also be that more people are receiving autism diagnoses.” And, while there is no consensus on the number of cases, it is clearly a condition with fairly high prevalence.  

It is one of the conditions that fits within the inclusive education approach applied at Herzlia Schools. Inclusive education is a philosophy that allows for children with varied abilities to all attend the same school. So, instead of allocating a child with ASD to a ‘special school’, the child attends a mainstream school and is thus able to enjoy the same education and social opportunities as other children. Amanda Varkel, Systemic Head of Educational Support at Herzlia, says: “We have many pupils with a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum enrolled at Herzlia and many other pupils who exhibit symptoms of ASD, but have no formal diagnosis.”

While schools aim to meet the diverse needs of all pupils, not all children with ASD can, however, be accommodated in a mainstream school. As Amanda explains, “In an environment like Herzlia, the environment can be overwhelming from a sensory point of view, which may be challenging for some children with ASD. In addition, there are many transitions throughout the school day — different classrooms, subjects and teachers — which is not always conducive to the learning environment of a child with autism. Herzlia offers extensive support to children with additional learning needs and we aim to work with families and children holistically in order to ensure the best learning outcomes from an academic, social and emotional point of view.” 

Cape Town Torah High also offers inclusive education, and curates individual learning programmes for each child, whether or not they are living with a particular non-neurotypical condition. “This implies that a child with ASD can learn in an environment unique to their particular needs and characteristics,” explains Sarah Hull, the Deputy Principal of the school, who is also the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO). “The concept of designing a learning programme particular to each of the 60 pupils in the school is particularly beneficial for someone who is not neurotypical. We can provide for that child to learn at their own pace, and to include courses in their own curriculum that are likely to be more appropriate for their individual make-up.”

Sarah highlights the advantages of having neurodivergent learners in the same environment as neurotypical ones. “The brain of the neurodivergent child, such as one with autism, processes information in ways different from the usual, and so there is so much more flavour to the way in which we see the world.”

Therapy and support dogs for autistic people

In many cases, dogs can assist a person with ASD. While a dedicated medical service or an emotional support animal that is a constant companion to the person with autism is not always possible – largely because many people find it difficult to cope with the pressure of working with one of these dogs — a number of local organisations offer assistance through providing therapy or facility dogs that work at a centre or children’s home.

Therapy TOP Dogs, for instance, provides visits with qualified dogs and their handlers to suitable facilities. Their programmes involve activities related to Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Assisted Interaction, and Animal Assisted Education. According to Sarah Bourhill, the Area Co-ordinator for TOP Dogs in the Western Cape, “The approach applied is to provide these activities as part of a multi-modal therapy team that is supervised and complies with the regulations of the particular facility.” (Find out more here:

Autism Support Dogs are also provided by SA Guide Dogs Association for the Blind, a global NGO that provides Guide, Service and Support Dogs for a range of needs. (More information is available at 

Just Dogs Behaviour, in association with Honey’s Garden Medical Alert Dogs SA, runs a course for anyone needing the support of a dog, but where the need does not extend to having a full-service dog to accompany the person everywhere. Says Lucy Breytenbach, the founder of Honey’s Garden, “Autistic children and their caregivers benefit from this Emotional Support Dog (ESD) course. Not only do the dogs learn how to ground the children and provide much needed comfort, but the families also learn a form of relationship training that gives the child skills and confidence in general.” The content of the course has been developed from knowledge of psychiatric service dog training, and families have the option to then further their skills and go on to certify their ESD as a full medical service dog after completing the course. (See more at and at 

While autism can be debilitating for the person with the condition, there are numerous ways in which organisations are working to provide support and assistance. No family should be left to battle it alone.

• Published in the May 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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