Autism Is a Word; It Is Also a Reality
- Rebekah Wilson TOS Magazine Contributor
- 2012 16 Nov
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.
Luke’s eyes were closed and he was so peaceful and relaxed. For ten minutes Luke stayed like that. Bones never moved or seemed to get annoyed or tired of Luke; Bones just sat there as if he knew this was exactly what was needed.
When Luke finally got up, he patted Bones on the head and walked away a happy, smiling, and very peaceful little boy. Normally we would have experienced escalated behavior from Luke, followed by a fallout period that would last from thirty minutes to several hours. That was the first time I realized how strongly Bones could affect Luke’s behavior, i.e., shorten the lengthy meltdowns and periods of fallout. We had just watched the first of many miracles take place, and the realization of how this dog was going to change Luke’s life had me in tears for hours.
That happened a year ago. Since then, Luke and Bones have been constant companions. Here are the top three enormous blessings we have observed since Bones joined our family:
1. Because of the service dog, Luke is now off all of his psychotropic medications; Bones has proven to be more effective in keeping Luke calm than any medication ever did. At times, this totally blows my mind because of the simplicity of it.
2. Luke tends to wander away and get lost, and when he is upset he runs away and hides. He also has no “stranger awareness” and would follow anyone anywhere. Bones is able to track Luke immediately, in any situation and any environment, and Bones can find Luke within two to three minutes. When at Boy Scout camp this past summer, Luke got lost twice because he wandered away. Each time, Bones found Luke within five minutes, keeping Luke safe and sparing the camp from being alerted and having to search for Luke.
3. At 8 years of age, Luke had never slept in his own bed. Now he sleeps in his own bed every night with Bones snuggled next to him.
The greatest blessing Bones has brought to Luke is the way that Bones “humanizes” Luke, drawing people to Luke for social interaction. The general public has a tendency to be overly harsh, critical, and unfriendly toward autistic individuals. This response limits Luke’s ability to interact with others, especially children his own age who tease or torment him. However, with a service dog at his side, Luke becomes a social magnet and people tend to accept his autism and disability—because the dog has accepted him. People ask Luke if they can pet his dog, ask questions about the dog, and in other ways draw Luke out into normal social situations with a positive twist to it.
Bones has been an incredible blessing for our family. If we had not observed the benefits firsthand, I would have not thought this possible. If you would like additional information, grab a tissue box and visit 4pawsforability.org. You can also email me with any questions you might have.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Rebekah Wilson continues to homeschool her eight children, one having earned a bachelor of science degree by age 18. All her children have moderate to severe learning disabilities; four are autistic. Rebekah is the former owner of Hope Chest Legacy, which closed in 2009. Rebekah is nearly finished with a dual degree in elementary and special education and is already working on fantastic products for homeschoolers with learning disabled and special needs children. She knows it, because she’s lived it! Contact Rebekah at email@example.com.
Publication date: November 19, 2012