As parents we so frequently instruct our children to ‘just be yourself.’ Over and over I impart this advice to my three young sons whenever they express anxiety about a new social situation.
By Eileen O’Connor
As parents we so frequently instruct our children to ‘just be yourself.’ Over and over I impart this advice to my three young sons whenever they express anxiety about a new social situation. However, in addition to three boys, I have a daughter who has autism, and honestly I hesitate to ever give her this advice.
Though my husband and I, and a rare few, love and delight in Erin’s eccentricities, we know the world at large is not quite as accepting. Since receiving her diagnosis at 22 months, we, along with a host of specialists, have devised a rigorous regime and barked a litany of instructions to help her function within the parameters of what social norms demand. Quiet voice, hands in your pocket, stand still, stop jumping, calm body, give the person space, look me in the eye, say hello, say good-bye, say thank you. It is hard enough to assimilate and make friends as a ‘typical’ kid; for children on the spectrum, their quirks, their language, and physical and behavioral challenges can make it next to impossible.
Three years ago, Erin met someone who, for the first time in her life, demanded nothing from her – a friend who was not bothered by her tendency to jump up and down and flap her hands, who did not mind her difficulties with voice modulation and spatial relations, and who welcomed and encouraged her need for close proximity. This individual genuinely loves and accepts her for who she is – for being herself – and has showered her with a level of affection, devotion, and patience that is beyond human — largely because he is just that.
Her friend is a dog, a very special dog, named Pablo.
Erin calls Pablo her ‘best buddy.’ Sometimes, to the boys’ infinite amusement, she refers to him as Smee – because he often sports a red bandana like the deckhand in Peter Pan.
Pablo, a black lab with big brown eyes, came to us through a program called Heeling Autism, which is operated by Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The primary goal of Heeling Autism is to provide safety for a child with autism and specifically to prevent them from bolting or wandering in public. While this is obviously a tremendous relief for parents who may have dreaded and avoided public outings with their children, the gifts that the children and families receive from this program are manifold.
One of Erin’s favorite activities is walking to town with Pablo. She does not participate in any organized sports, so on a practical level this serves as her primary means of exercise. With Pablo at her side, they log several miles a week, his steady gait grounding and keeping her focused on the road ahead. He also facilitates conversation and connection with all whom cross their path. They have become a familiar sight along this route. Cars honk, neighbors wave, and kids and adults alike greet them. Pablo puts people at ease and places Erin in a position in which she must interact and communicate in a way that seems very natural – almost typical.
While Erin is the main recipient of Pablo’s time, attention and affection, our entire family has gained immeasurably from his presence in our lives. Behind every child affected by autism, is a family touched and forever changed by this diagnosis. While Erin’s three younger brothers have never known a life other than one in which their older sister behaves differently than their friends’ siblings, I know there are days they wish that she and they had a different experience.
Every time we enter a new situation or setting as a family, anxiety levels rise as we can never be certain how Erin will react. How will she respond? Will something set her off? Will we have to leave immediately? Who will leave with her and who will stay with the boys? Or will we all just exit and call it a day? In our family there is a fair amount of uncertainty regarding even the most mundane outing.
While a dog does not change the fact that their sister has autism, he certainly has enhanced the equation. Like many boys, ours wanted a dog – and had lobbied for one pretty much since they could speak. A dog for Christmas? A dog for my birthday? A dog for his birthday? A dog this summer – or when we go back to school? No, no, no, and, again, no. As we pointed out time after time, life was challenging enough taking care of them – not to mention Erin. There was no way we could ever have imagined introducing a dog to this picture — until we learned of the program that places trained dogs with families touched by autism.
Heeling Autism has not negated the challenges Erin or our family face, but it has helped to bring about a fair amount of healing by introducing us to someone who: wants no one to change; loves without condition, and stands resolutely by your side as you have a complete meltdown because you can’t find the purple one; licks tears and wayward crumbs off your face and will play fetch when everyone else has gone inside; listens to you read for hours and doesn’t correct a word; never say it’s time to go, we are late, you’re taking too long, stop acting that way; and when mom’s not looking loves to share your hamburger.