LEANDER, Texas — When Kayla Gage starts to have an anxiety attack at the fast food joint where she works, she pets her Russian German shepherd, Hacker, who she keeps in the restaurant’s office.

“If I just pet a dog, it pulls me out of it,” said Gage, 23, who has autism and struggles with anxiety. “Normally, it takes my mom saying my name 50 times to pull me out.”

Gage is in a new Austin Dog Alliance program aimed at preparing young adults with autism for careers. The program’s secret weapon: man’s best friend. Dogs are often easier for people with autism to work with, because they’re easier to read than people are and they tend to be more forgiving.

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“These students, they don’t have a whole lot of job opportunities available to them, or a lot of training, or people who even understand how to work with them,” said Carolyn Honish, who teaches the Student + Canines equals Opportunities for Rewarding Employment, or S+CORE, class.

“They need the same opportunities as everybody else,” Honish said.

According to a decade-long study funded by the U.S. Department of Education that documented the experiences of a national sample of students who were 13 to 16 years old in 2000 as they moved from secondary school into adulthood, only 32.5 percent of participants with autism worked for pay, while an average of 59 percent of those without autism had a paying job.

The class is the first of two Austin Dog Alliance classes funded by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. The nonprofit receives $2,439 per student from the state for the second-level course that begins for the first time this spring. That money goes toward paying for instructors, insurance and facility costs.

The class teaches students what they need to know to land and hold down jobs, most of them working with dogs.

This fall, students in the first-level course were working at the Central Texas SPCA, learning how to clean kennels and take care of the dogs there. Students who continue to the second level of the class will learn more advanced skills, like grooming.

So far the program’s making a big difference, parents and students both say.

When a classmate helped 18-year-old Ben Wilkins a few weeks ago, he did something he doesn’t usually do. He said “thank you.”

“That makes me very proud that he’s learning to say ‘thank you,'” Ben’s mother, Monica Wilkins, said. “He’s very enthusiastic about this class.”

Like many with autism, the high school senior can find it difficult to figure out how to respond in social situations, especially in contexts that are new to him.

Canines are the key to helping students like Ben Wilkins come out of their shells socially, Monica Wilkins said.

“Dogs are non-judgmental,” she said. Ben Wilkins’s dog, a golden retriever named Max, is his rock, she said. “He’s who he goes to when he’s stressed and Max will just lick him in the face.”

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