Our daughter has a rare chromosome disorder that causes autism and epilepsy. We received an assistance dog from Assistance Dogs NZ Trust in October 2016 when Isla was 7 years old. We had never heard of service dogs working with children with autism in New Zealand. Like many people I come across now, these dogs are thought of as working with the blind or the deaf. The more I researched the more I believed this would help Isla, not only now, but give her more independence as she got older. Assistance Dogs NZ Trust are the only organisation that train dogs for children with disabilities such as autism in New Zealand.
After 2 years on the waitlist our lives changed immeasurably when Bo joined our family. For the first time Isla started sleeping through the night with Bo comforting her on her bed, she started sitting at the table to eat, with Bo in his bed beside the table, and she started showing interest in something other than herself. However the main benefit was the new found freedom we receive as a family when out in the community. Before Bo, Isla was unpredictable when we were out. She was firmly hand held (or wrist held) everywhere or we just didn’t go out as would put her in danger. She would either be hyperactive or overly anxious in response to sensory stimulation. Sometimes she would be manic, unable to make rational decisions or would be overwhelmed covering her ears and falling asleep and want to go home. Just walking to school was pretty much like walking with a toddler with her touching, exploring and licking everything as we go.
Now when we go out Isla is tethered to Bo with a belt around her waist and clipped to his coat. If she tries to pull away he lies down and provides a 35kg anchor. Over time this has taught her she is unable to take off (and she has tried). I can now go out and it is so less exhausting. She cannot go anywhere and I know she is safe and can be independent to a degree without me holding on to her for dear life.
Isla hasn’t got very good spatial awareness and doesn’t look where she is going. This gets worse when there is a lot going on around her. She will walk straight into people, over people and through groups of people sitting down. With Bo she has to bring her awareness back to what she is doing and if she can’t he will do that for her. Also seeing a child with a big hairy dog in a public setting people tend to look out for her and move aside for the wide load coming through. At roads, Isla is learning to stop and look by giving commands to Bo.
Autism is an invisible disability. Isla may look like a normal 9 year old at times but her way of thinking is not, which leads to frequent tantrums and unusual reactions to events. Bo alerts others that all is not as it seems. The tantrums haven’t got less embarrassing or less loud but now they bring less negative attention and perhaps more understanding. People will also often ask us about her dog which gives Isla opportunities to engage in conversation with others that she would have not previously had.
The benefits we received in the first week of having Bo continue on years later. As Isla (and Bo) grow older, hopefully she will become the handler and we will be trained for this transition by ADNZT. This will provide her with more independence and hopefully more acceptance. It gives us hope as a family there will be something to help her with what others find simple tasks as she matures. Our experiences with Assistance Dogs NZ Trust has been amazing. They are so passionate about helping children like Isla. There are so many more children and families that could benefit from having an assistance dog to help make their lives a little easier. - Sara Stythe
To hear more from Isla and Bo, follow their adventures on instagram @simlpyisla_