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Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are often faced with significant challenges and while some individuals are able to live relatively independent lives, others may have accompanying learning disabilities and require a lifetime of specialist support.
For four-year-old Thomas, living with undiagnosed autism became a daily challenge. Yet, introducing Briggs into the family, a specially trained Labrador from the UK charity, Dogs for Good, gave the family independence and provided a safer environment for Thomas.
As a baby, Emma Cobbald, Thomas’s mother, knew there was something different about Thomas. As she poignantly said: “Looking into his eyes I just didn’t get any feedback. Gradually it became more apparent that he was not simply a 'late developer'.”
While walking to nursery with his mother, Thomas saw a dead stag beetle on the pavement and asked: “How did the stag beetle die?” Although his question had been answered numerous times, not one answer satisfied him and the question was continuously repeated for a further six months.
Ms Cobbald battled for many years to get Thomas officially diagnosed with ASD. A paediatrician finally confirmed he had the disorder when he was six years old.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to other people and the world around them. Known as the ‘triad of impairments’ people with autism have varying degrees of difficulty with social communication, interaction and imagination.
The disorder is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways.
The National Autistic Society has revealed around 700,000 people are living with autism in England, equivalent to more than 1 in 100 in the population.
People living with autism believe that the world to them is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of and which can cause them considerable anxiety.
Once Thomas had been diagnosed with autism Ms Cobbald expected their lifestyle to change. She commented: “In my heart I was expecting it, but the hardest thing was accepting it. This was now his life and his future and it wasn’t going to go away and he wouldn’t grow out of it. I just thought, what are we going to do?"
Christine Swabey, chief executive of charity Austistica, has called for more efforts to bring down the age of autism diagnosis in young children. She explained: “The average age of autism diagnosis in the UK is approximately five years, even though most parents notice that their child is developing differently around their second birthday.
“Crucially, the delay also means that key opportunities to provide support are missed. We know that intervening as early as possible, when the child’s brain is still developing, is most effective and the best way for the child to build new skills.”
Nurseries have a vital role to play in early identification on the disorder as they have many links with specialists that can help give parents expert advice and support.
Autism has affected Thomas in a number of ways. Ms Cobbald explained: “Every day is hard work for Thomas and many things that we take for granted are a significant challenge for him. He needs constant reminders about everything. Put simply, if no-one told Thomas to get out of bed, he wouldn’t.
“Routine is absolutely essential and disruption, however seemingly insignificant, can cause huge distress. Thomas has relied on visual timetables both at home and at nursery and still uses them at school, which help him understand his planned day and activities.”
Like many with autism, Thomas is affected by sensory overload: sudden noises, smells and sights. He also has difficulty with his fine and gross motor skills and requires help dressing, toileting and feeding.
In addition, Thomas frequently displays ‘stimming’ behaviour, whereby his actions and words are often repeated if he feels uncomfortable.
Ms Cobbald added: “Thomas struggles to read facial expressions. He can’t tell by looking or by the tone of voice unless you shout what you are feeling. For example, he takes everything you say literally. ‘Thomas, watch that puddle’ means he will.”
Although Ms Cobbald received support from Thomas’ nursery, she researched information on autism and attended information courses to help reduce his challenges and make his life easier, regardless of emotional or financial cost.
After thorough research, the family discovered Dogs for Good, a national charity that supports the lives of individuals living with disabilities or disorders. Ms Cobbald said: “I was so excited by what I found, so much advice and information focuses on the negatives but Dogs for Good is so positive.
“I knew we had to get Thomas an autism assistance dog.”
Dogs for Good, provide families like Thomas’ with a fully-trained autism assistance dog to help support a child’s lifestyle. The dogs can also help change behaviour by: introducing routines, reducing bolting behaviour, interrupting repetitive behaviour and helping a child cope with unfamiliar surroundings.
Briggs, Thomas’ black Labrador, arrived in September 2014 and made a significant change to the family’s lifestyle. Ms Cobbald added: “Before we had Briggs, going out anywhere was very stressful for the family. It was common to head out somewhere and never make it. We’ve been asked to leave places before because of Thomas’ behaviour and we’ve left because it was just too hard to stay or we felt his behaviour was upsetting others. Not once has this happened since we have had Briggs.
“When we go out now Thomas is attached to Briggs, held by me, and he feels safe and secure. People see Briggs in his special jacket and realise he’s there for a reason. Thomas used to stop stock still and refuse to move, but with the ‘forward’ command, Briggs helps him to keep moving.”
At home Briggs’ presence makes Thomas calmer, there are significantly fewer ‘melt-downs’ and he is far less anxious, particularly upon arrival at school.
Commenting on the positive effects Dogs for Good has for children and families, Peter Gorbing, chief executive of Dogs for Good, said: “As a charity we constantly see the benefits that dogs bring to people’s lives, far beyond practical support. Our expertise training assistance dogs led us to believe we could also support families affected by autism with a well-trained pet dog.”
Furthermore, Rebecca Johnson, director at the Missouri University Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), added: “We are beginning to learn how companion animals may provide comfort and unconditional love to families of children with autism, and to the children themselves.
“Pet dogs can have a calming effect in stressful situations. This may be particularly important given the very high stress levels of these families.”
Summing up their journey thus far, Ms Cobbald, concluded: “Thomas is now eight, but emotionally and developmentally he’s like a four year old. We are blessed with Thomas and he has certainly made us better, more understanding and patient people.”
Ms Cobbald is currently setting up a National Autistic Society Local Parents Support Group within Windsor. As from 15 October 2015, Dogs for the Disabled became Dogs for Good.