February 2nd marked the one-year anniversary for Hope’s introduction into our home. That was the time that everything really started changing for our family. As I look back over my posts from that week(Re-entry and First Family Outing,) I am amazed at how far we have come. I am proud of all of us for sinking into this new reality whole-heartedly. It has clearly paid off. When people ask me about Hope and say, “So, has the service dog made a difference for your son and your family?” I have to smile. My answer is, “It has made our whole life better.”
Things could not be more different now than they were a year ago. In a nutshell, Gray is a better boy with Hope by his side. In all honesty, my original goal in getting a service dog was just to tie an anchor around my crazy kid so that he couldn’t run out into traffic or disappear into a crowd. That was it. Yes, I had some other far-fetched ideas about what this magical dog might do for Gray, but in reality, I was just hoping for an anchor. In fact, Barry and I had more than one conversation where we wondered if we might get the same effect if we tethered Gray to one of us. It sounds ridiculous, but at the time, we really didn’t understand what difference it made who Gray was tied to.
Now, a year later, I have a better grasp on what Hope really means to Gray. She means security and direction to a boy who never understood where he was supposed to be. Where we saw a kid who just wanted to RUN, I now understand that he was really a kid who was constantly in search…of what, I don’t think he knew. Before, when people would ask me why it was hard to take Gray out in public, I would describe a scene where Gray was constantly trying to run away from us, one of us would grab or chase him, and Gray would end up having a meltdown on the ground. I truly didn’t believe that he had the capacity to stay with us or participate in our outings; thus, the need for an anchor.
Of course, it only took a short time for Gray to understand what Hope could do for him. Within a couple of months, the tether just became a safety strap because Gray no longer tried to pull away. Walking next to Hope and holding his handle, Gray is relaxed and comfortable out in public. He is no longer searching. Hope is the constant in Gray’s life that follows him to all of the places that his people cannot. Whether he is at school or home or the park or on an airplane, Hope is with him and Gray knows he is just where he should be. I think that is a tremendous relief to a boy who spent the first 6 years of his life unsure of his surroundings or the expectations for his behavior outside of a therapy setting.
This new, stable mental state has allowed us to reduce his need for medications and increase his goals for both functional and academic skills. Over the last year, I feel like we have really gotten to learn more about Gray’s personality…aside from his autism. Gray is a sweet and happy boy who likes to get out and see the world. Just like me, he doesn’t like being isolated or cooped up at home. He is always up for an outing, and going out to eat is the quickest way to cure a foul mood. When we are out and enjoying a family afternoon, he will often reach for Zoe or Lena and give them a big squeeze and a kiss. Both girls have learned to walk next to him in an affectionate headlock. Likewise, his newfound patience has allowed him to communicate better. He has learned that we will all stop and let him have time to use his iPad when he needs to say something. He has learned that we are his people and he can trust us to meet his needs.
Additionally, I feel like I have found my voice through my recording of this journey. I have something to say to people who have no experience with kids like Gray. I want to tell them that he is just a kid who wants to do kid things. It might take a lot more effort for him, but getting to know kids like Gray will make you a better person. I promise. You will be kinder and more patient and more grateful for your own life. Your heart will swell when something you do contributes to the pure joy that comes from a kid who is not entitled, but works hard in every aspect of his life. As one person recently told me after spending way more time at our house than she intended, “That smile just sucks you in!”
I also have much to say to other parents of children with autism. It is up to us to allow our children to reach their full potential. While therapy to improve on behavior and speech and fine motor skills is important, it is equally important to meet your kid where they are. Imagine parenting a typical child where the overall message to them is “you’re abnormal, disgusting, embarrassing and not fit for the general public.” For typical kids, that would be considered child abuse. For kids with autism, whether intentional or not, that message is very common. With the newest studies showing that autism has now reached an incidence of 1 in 36 children, it is time to realize that the population is going to look very different in 20 or 30 years. We all need to work together to make a community that accepts these kids and young adults as they are and helps them find their place in world. We can’t expect our kids to learn how to properly behave in the community if we restrict their access to the public.
More than anything, this year has been a gift to me and my family. Having a child with special needs makes you look at life in a different way. You become envious of “normal” families and their easy lives. It can be easy to wallow in self-pity over the things that you are missing out on. Now, I don’t feel that way anymore. Truly. When we want to go out to eat or make weekend plans, I don’t even consider Gray’s behavior any more than I consider Lena or Zoe. Hope is a miracle, and the people who contributed to her training and selection for our family are real-life angels. I don’t know what the next year has in store for Gray or our family, but I can tell you that my goals have been set much higher!