BY SHARON FUENTES
This article was first published in our Feb/Mar 2012 issue. This is an archival reprint.
While making dinner I hear the familiar sounds of my ten-year-old son, Jay, having a meltdown upstairs. Something has set him off. Perhaps a math problem from his homework, a comment made by his little sister or even something as simple as his pencil tip breaking. Jay has Asperger Syndrome. Frustration and anxiety run high within him. I hear him toss his school books to the ground and storm away in a fit of anger. I know where he is going—to his safe place to try and calm himself. By the time I reach his bedroom closet, Jay has managed to settle down. Stanley, our newly adopted Miniature Pinscher mix, has wiggled his way into Jay’s lap and has worked his canine magic. Somehow, this little 21-pound puppy has found a way to connect with my son. He makes him feel as if he belongs in a world that can often seem foreign and difficult for him.
Jay is considered high functioning autistic and highly verbal. After many years of therapy and lots of hard work, he is learning to use techniques—such as petting Stanley—to help guide himself through stressful moments and difficult social interactions. There are numerous children and adults like Jay. In fact, the statistics are a bit daunting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 3 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. One out of 110 children in the United States has a disorder on the autistic spectrum. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or pediatric AIDS combined.
Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the spectrum have exceptional abilities such as visual skills, musical talents and/or a high academic aptitude. Their distinctive “atypical” ways of viewing the world have already or will someday lead them to do incredible things.
However, there are others who have significant disabilities and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with autism are nonverbal, prone to self-inflicted injuries and impulsive wandering. Many parents of children who fall into this end of the spectrum are now turning towards specially trained service dogs to help provide protection and to increase independence, community involvement and verbalization in addition to having a loyal friend.
Service Dogs to the Rescue
Imagine, if you will, that your child does not respond to her own name. No matter how many locks you put on your doors or how well you watch her, your little Houdini always finds a way to escape. You have not had a good night’s sleep in years for you fear of what will happen if you shut your eyes. And then—Fido to the rescue.
To parents of autistic children who are prone to elopement, an Autism Service Dog (ASD) is truly a Super Hero. Just ask the Felty Family of Loudon County, TN who say that their service Weimaraner, Sydney, saved their severely autistic 27-year-old daughter’s life.
“Nataysha wandered out of the house one day, and no one knew she was out except Sydney,” recalls Tammy Felty of her daughter. “As my daughter bolted toward the busy road by our home, Sydney ran and pushed her to the side to avoid a car—and got hit by the car herself.” Sydney suffered some internal injuries and a broken leg. Yet, even with her injuries, she still kept up with Nataysha. Sydney has since made a full recovery and has learned to bark to alert the family if Nataysha attempts to go outdoors on her own.
Obtaining an Autism Service Dog
If your family could benefit from an ASD, there are two options for acquiring one: you can train one yourself, or obtain one from a specialized organization.
Training any dog requires a high level of skill as well as an investment of time and energy—something that many autism families just don’t have to spare. Dogs that are given public access must be thoroughly taught appropriate skills not only for the safety of the public, but also to continue to encourage community acceptance.
After being on several waitlists for quite a few years, the Felty family set out to find Nataysha’s special new buddy on their own. The biggest challenge was in finding the right breed and dog to train.
“Sydney actually picked us three years ago,” Tammy says. “We went to visit a litter of Weimaraners [a breed known for being friendly, loyal and excellent watchdogs]. Nataysha was rocking, flapping her arms and making noises. Sydney climbed right onto her lap, who immediately calmed down. It was a miracle.”
The Feltys adopted Syndey and spent the next month bonding with her and working on basic dog training commands such as come, sit and stay. She was then turned over to a professional trainer who taught her all the autism skills she would need to help Nataysha.
While the home training indeed worked for the Felty family, working with an organization such as Wilderwood Service Animals (WSA) makes the process easier. Located in Maryville, TN (about three hours east of Nashville), the non-profit organization specializes in providing trained dogs with skills to help individuals with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Epilepsy and Autism.
The group was started in 2005 by Tiffany Denyer, a licensed and practicing Psychiatric Nurse who knew firsthand what a difference dogs can make in the lives of the entire family. “A service dog can ease a family’s stress by providing the comfort that their child is going to be safe and accounted for,” she says.
While obtaining an Austism Service Dog is not cheap (Wilderwood dogs are a $12,000 investment), the organization does provide help for fundraising and grant applications. In addition, candidates typically face a year-long waitlist, followed by intensive training; however, the end result and peace of mind is worth both the time and money investment to many families.
PICTURED AT RIGHT: Sydney, an Autism Service Dog (ASD), nursed a broken leg after being hit by a car during her rescue of her family's autistic child. She saved Nataysha's life and has since fully recovered from her own injury.
How to Help a Family in Need
Wilderwood Service Animals is looking for businesses and individuals to sponsor the cost of a dog for a family in need. “Autism can be such an isolating disorder and many of the families that come to us just don’t have a network to turn to,” says Denyer. Whether you can volunteer your time or donate money to help support a family in need of a service dog, your compassion will be put to great use!
For More Information:
Wilderwood Service Animals
Sharon Fuentes is a freelance writer and mother to human kids Jay and Grace, and to canine kid Stanley. She blogs about all three at blog.mamasturnnow.com. This was her first article for Nashville Paw and appeared in our Feb/Mar 2012 issue.