The idea of a service dog being used for an individual with autism is still in its infancy stages. Not many people realize dogs do anything to help autism at all. There are studies and statistics slowly emerging supporting the idea, but very little of that was available two years ago when we made the decision to get one.
My son Sean is almost nine and has Asperger’s Syndrome. For those who don’t understand what this form of high-functioning autism is, I usually say it’s part Max from Parenthood, part Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and a mix of sweetness and volatility thrown in.
Sean is my most caring child, but he is also my most unpredictable. He doesn’t differentiate when someone is serious or joking. He has trouble in social situations. He’d rather play Legos or video games by himself than go to his own sister’s birthday party.
Sensory issues make crowds, loud noises, odd smells, and certain fabrics literally painful to him. And a change in routine or not getting his own way can cause a meltdown that can be heard three neighborhoods away.
As a result, we have quite a bit of care in place to help Sean. There are medications, talk therapy, occupational and speech therapy, and even wraparound care, where special counselors come to the house and work with your child a few days a week.
All are amazing and we have managed to surround Sean with a great team of counselors that help him function pretty well in the outside world. Good enough in some instances that I get the dreaded “that’s funny, he doesn’t look like he has autism” line. I’ve learned to respond to that by simply saying “thank you.” All of our hard work is paying off.
As wonderful as Sean’s team is, I have learned the hard way they are not permanent. As much as I would love to block all of the exits some nights, force them to sleep on the air mattress, and feed them the same frozen chicken nuggets I am feeding the kids for dinner, they do have to go home.
And twice in 2011, due to mistakes and budget cuts in the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, Sean lost his health insurance. When that happens, the agencies that provide Sean’s wonderful team do not get paid, and all care stops immediately.
You saw me mention before Sean doesn’t like changes in routine, right? Well, imagine how he responds when the change in routine means taking away the very people who help him.
Those days without care were dark. I am a stay-at-home-mom because my husband works crazy hours. Grandma lives with us too, but she’s still not used to dealing with this whole autism thing yet.
So it was just me against a raging and screaming Sean plus two other kids in the house. I’ve been kicked, punched in the face, have had doors slammed on parts of my body, and have been called names even I would never call anyone. My older son tried to yell at Sean to stop, not realizing he is not able to control these meltdowns and can’t just “snap out of them.” My younger daughter would be in a corner whimpering in fear, not understanding what was happening to the big brother she loves so much.
The meltdowns would stop after about two or three hours. Yes, I sad HOURS. That is not a typo. Once Sean would calm down and go to bed and I would get the other two settled for the night, I would lie on my own bed and sob.
People tell me all the time I’m a good Mom, but this Mom was failing her child. I knew we needed something else. Some other kind of help. Something that wouldn’t end when Sean reached a certain age, something that insurance could not take away.
That’s when we found Sophia.
A former co-worker of mine and his wife were starting a nonprofit organization looking to match children on the autism spectrum with service dogs. I had no interest in getting a dog, as we had just lost one due to a stroke a few months before (and secretly, I am totally a cat person) but I sent them a message on Facebook and secured an invitation to their training facility.
In March of 2011, Sean and I went to the facility, where we were promptly greeted by an English Lab puppy, who ran over to Sean, knocked him to the ground, and covered his face with kisses. Everyone was nervous about how Sean would react, but he giggled with delight, and didn’t let go of that puppy the entire visit. Sophia was ours.
Sean and Sophia began training together soon after, and she came home to us for good in September 2011. Since that time we haven’t had a single two-hour meltdown. Sophia runs over and kisses Sean’s hands or face, and his agitation eases almost immediately.
Sean instinctively hugs Sophia when he’s nervous or buries his face in her back when sensory issues bother him. His social skills are beginning to improve because kids come up to him now to ask about the dog. And the tether that connects them keeps Sean safe, as he is prone to bolting when he’s upset, and will randomly walk into streets and high-traffic areas without paying the least bit of attention to what’s around him. And at night, when the team members go home, I tuck both Sean and Sophia into bed and kiss them goodnight.
So why did our family get an autism service dog? Despite all of the wordiness above, the answer is quite simple:
Sophia is the care for Sean that never goes away!