I’m finally on the plane. After a 15 month wait, I’m going to get Gray’s dog. What lies ahead is a leap of faith for me.
One evening, last October, I flipped on a recorded episode of the Today show while Barry finished putting our older daughter to bed. After they were asleep, he plopped down on the couch beside me. The segment that caught our attention was about some crazy manager at a fast food restaurant who assaulted a mother in the restaurant with her autistic son and his service dog. It was not a terribly interesting story, but after it was over, Barry turned to me and said, “I wonder how an autistic kid would use a service dog?”
Good question. I was thinking that myself. I jumped up and headed over to the computer to do a little internet research:
It was like a lightening bolt hit me when I realized that OUR autistic kid needed a service dog! I stayed up way too late that night reading all I could and looking at applications for various organizations. When I crawled into bed well after midnight, I told Barry, “We are definitely doing this.”
As I write this now, I am sitting on a plane to Portland where I will meet our sweet miracle dog in about 12 hours. I still have no proof that this will work out the way I hope, but I have faith. What is it I am expecting? I’m not totally sure. Magic?
Here is what I know:
We have a simple list of things that are required to make our lives livable.
1. Gray needs to be potty trained. We are on our way, but after 3.5 years of working on this skill ever so diligently, we are still not quite there.
2. Gray needs to stop disrupting our family with his tantrums and hyper-manic episodes. It makes him miserable and it makes everyone around him miserable.
3. We need to be able to go out in public as a family without the fear of Gray running away into a dangerous situation. He has bolted away from us in parking lots, playgrounds that are close to busy streets, and even our own home is not a place that we can be sure he will stay put. We deserve to go visit friends or walk around the mall or check out a street festival like other families do. Up until now, I have had to resolve myself to leaving him with a babysitter or therapist whenever we want to do family things with the girls.
If we want to eat with him in a restaurant, it needs to be somewhere with a booth where I can corner him in or a table that is backed into a wall so that Barry and I can keep him corralled close by. This restaurant better have french fries immediately available and I generally have to apologize to at least a dozen people about Gray interrupting their meal with his bouncing, running around, stealing food off their plates, or general loud squeals and possible tantrums. It is not pleasant.
If we want to visit a friend’s house for a barbecue or a birthday party, I have to make sure that the house will have all the doors locked and all the gates are secure and I will spend the entire time following Gray around making sure that he doesn’t escape the premises, or destroy someones belongings or strip naked and poop in some corner. Obviously, there are only a very few very close friends who are willing to invite Gray into their homes.
If we want to go out anywhere that is truly public (farmers market, walk in the neighborhood, trick-or-treating, or the mall), an adult must be assigned to pay attention solely to Gray. He will hold your hand for a while, but after about 15-20 minutes, he tires of that and wants to run around without regard for his own safety and proximity to the family. Within 30-40 minutes a meltdown is almost guaranteed because he will not want this adult grabbing at him every 2 seconds to keep him with the group. Now that he is really too big for a stroller, we don’t go to those places with him anymore.
SO, HERE IS THE FIRST BENEFIT
Tether training happens when Gray wears a belt with a tether that secures him to his dog’s vest. The adult who is supervising Gray will then hold the dog’s leash and away they go into the community. The idea is that Gray will become accustomed to having the dog by his side. After a short training period, he will learn to ignore the tether that is attached to him and just follow the lead of the dog. Since the dog is able to follow commands and stay with her pack, Gray will learn to come along. The tether will serve as his cue to stop or go as his dog does. This should serve him both in open environments where he is expected to walk with the group as well as in seated environments where it is not appropriate to get up and wander around.
WE HOPE THIS WILL BE THE SECOND BENEFIT
Additionally, Gray and his dog should grow a bond. She will sense when he is getting upset and perhaps help him to calm down more quickly. Perhaps her calm energy will influence his. Perhaps the sensory input he gets from stroking and rubbing her will reduce his need to stroke and pinch other people.
AND THEN THERE IS THE EXTRA BENEFIT
Finally, perhaps our family can stop having to apologize so much to everyone around us. Gray looks pretty normal until he starts squealing and screaming and throwing shoes at people and pulling hair. It is never a fun moment when you have to explain to a stranger that your son (brother, grandchild) is autistic and therefore acting strange for a reason. Perhaps the dog will just make that announcement for us. When we walk in somewhere with a dog in a vest, people will notice, right? They will give us some extra latitude. And, perhaps, with the dog, Gray won’t need so much latitude anymore.
If this works, life is about to get REALLY good.