Our family understands both the word and the reality very, very well. Out of our eight biological children, four have been diagnosed with autism. Two more are on the spectrum but are not diagnosed. Our family has practiced most of the traditional and nontraditional methods to help autistic children. Some methods have worked, and some have not. 

The most effective method we have discovered so far is an autism service dog trained by 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that specializes in placing highly trained, professional service dogs with children. Most service dog organizations will not place a dog with a child until the child reaches 16–18 years of age. Yet, it is when children are young that they need the dog the most. 

Here’s Luke’s story—maybe you know someone who can be encouraged by it.

Luke is our seventh child and the fourth diagnosed with autism. Nearly every autistic child has secondary issues as well, and Luke is no exception. He had the most severe ADHD our child psychiatrist had ever seen. Once the ADHD was under control through medication, the autism became glaring. Luke also has medical issues that revolve around malabsorption, also common with autism. Luke received numerous therapies and services and we went through a medication regime too, but ultimately the psychotropic medications were not good for Luke’s health. Some have severe side effects, including irrevocable diabetes and liver failure—not something any parents want their child taking for very long. Also, the longer Luke was on those medications, the less effective they became. We needed something else in our arsenal of parental tools.

As a result of continual research and talking with others, the suggestion of an autism service dog came up. I was intrigued to say the least, because service dogs are generally seen with visually impaired or hearing-impaired adults, not autistic children! I began to learn more about the topic of autism service dogs. More than a hundred hours of research later, for overwhelming reasons, we chose 4 Paws for Ability. We applied, were accepted, and began raising funds for Luke’s dog. 

However, less than two months later, my husband suffered a small stroke, and consequently I put on hold everything related to the service dog. Then the Los Angeles Police Department, my husband’s employer, heard about Luke’s need and generously offered to help us reach our goal in just a few weeks!

I thought I was prepared for what an autism service dog would do for Luke and his autistic siblings. I knew the dog would be trained in search and rescue tracking, meltdown behavior disruption, tethering, and alerting and would have a few tricks tossed in to keep Luke busy, but I wasn’t prepared for how strongly the dog could affect the child. There is an enormous, overwhelming calmness that transcends the spirit of an autistic child when he is near a service dog, something you have to witness to fully grasp and understand.

The first time I saw this with Luke was during our third day of official training with the service dog, Bones, when Luke had a major meltdown and was hurting himself. Luke started to escalate and get upset because his hamburger was missing and we couldn’t find it; he sat down next to me and began slapping his head. When I tried to hold Luke’s arms, he began to punch his head, so I put him in a bear hug to hold his arms down and wait it out. At that point, Luke used his knee to whack his head and hit himself so hard that he nearly knocked us both off of the couch and onto the ground. I ended up crossing my legs over his as I gave him the bear hug (I felt like a human pretzel!). 

Bones was in the middle of the room practicing commands and got a little distracted when he saw Luke struggling and crying. When Bones’ training was over, he came to Luke and began to nuzzle him and lick him (he’s trained to do this to interrupt Luke’s meltdowns). Luke suddenly stopped . . . completely. He became very still, melted into me, and then slid onto the floor in a heap. Bones sat down next to Luke and Luke scooted over, crouched behind Bones, and then simply leaned on Bones.