Introduction to Max and Why We Need an Autism Dog
Our Max is the sweetest boy. He is special and exceptional in almost every way. As an infant he confounded almost all of our expectations of parenting, hitting some developmental milestones incredibly early and others incredibly late. He didn’t really sleep all that much, and still doesn’t.
Early on we noticed he was extremely sensitive to all sensory input. Even as a baby he didn’t really care for leaving the house, whether it was on foot or in a stroller or in the car. It was quite isolating. Now that I know more about Autism it’s hard to believe that we didn’t see it back then. No other families we knew bounced their babies to sleep in their arms on a Therapy Ball, or literally couldn’t put their babies down. Max would be so upset to be anywhere but in someone’s arms that he would cry until he vomited. After trying everything to help him adapt, finally we adapted to him.
Most families just took their babies with them wherever they needed to go and the babies would sleep, feed and play in any setting. They seemed oblivious to their surroundings. Not our Max. He noticed everything. He watched everything like he would be tested on it later. People who met him would say, “Wow, he’s so…ALERT.”
Unlike many children with Autism, Max makes good eye contact and is highly verbal. He was speaking clearly in full sentences before he was two. Since he was my first child, I didn’t know this was unusual. And I had heard that Autistic people lacked empathy. Our Max had so much empathy if someone else was sad, it was like he could feel it as strongly as they could! I subsequently learned that intense empathy is also a sign of Autism, but at the time, Autism was the last diagnosis I would have expected.
I did know it was odd that he colored with more precision at age two, than I did as an adult. And I noticed his habit of saying everything I said two or three times after me. Echolalia, they call this. But I knew he was learning how to talk this way, so I gave it no notice.
At age 3, once he was “out in the world” attending preschool, we began to see the Autism. I had to attend with him for the first year. Loud sounds terrified him. He preferred adults to children companions. Group singing in preschool would send him into a screaming tantrum like nothing else. He started to need to wear ear muffs outside of the house. If something scared him, he would bolt. This was probably the greatest safety concern, and still is. I could keep up with him when he was three, but now that he’s a big, strong 9 year old I’m lucky if I can keep him in my sights for long. It has been absolutely terrifying at times, seeing him disappear into a crowd, or dart towards a busy street.
His first diagnosis was Anxiety. He was too anxious to perform all the tests required to rule out Autism, so we had to wait until he was much older to test again. At age seven we finally got the complete picture of what made our Max so exceptional and so challenging to parent. He had Anxiety, Autism, and was off the charts gifted.
By this time, whatever his diagnosis, we knew we had to keep his world small. Shopping malls, movies, playgrounds, big loud parties were all out of the question. Even family gatherings could be too much. Even a quiet walk in the forest would be too much for him on a bad day. And as he became too big for us to pick up and just carry off the scene if he had a meltdown, we had to stop trying these things.
Even within our family home Max lives a lot of hours in isolation. Sometimes his sensory issues are so overwhelming he needs to be away from the family, but then his Anxiety is so overwhelming he has to try to be with us again. The stress of not being able to find comfort can sometimes make him so overwhelmed he has panic attacks. Then he feels terrible later after he regains control. It is so hard on his self esteem.
At school, until we found a special school that could handle both the Autism and the giftedness, he was either bored to death during the structured academic part, or he was overwhelmed during the noisy, unstructured play part. It’s hard for him to be with friends because no one is capable of being aware enough or sensitive enough to his needs to not upset him. Autism makes it difficult for him to be as flexible as a person needs to be to cooperate with others. Even at this very special school he is only able to attend a few days a week, not all five.
We’ve tried many medications to help him cope, but Max has such a sensitive system that the side effects were often worse than the symptoms they were treating. We have just not been able to bring this sweet boy peace.
Sleep is still our biggest challenge. He’s scared to be alone at night. If we try to sleep with him our snoring wakes him up. We’re coping by using a walkie-talkie, which he wakes us up with several times a night for comfort and reassurance. The less sleep he gets, the less his ability to cope with being a human on earth. The less sleep we get, the less we are able to meet the challenges of parenting him and his three year old sister Ramona, and the less we are able to meet our everyday adult responsibilities successfully. We’ve been coping on minimal sleep for a long time.
Ramona is too young to be alone for more than a moment or two, and her noisy unpredictability is usually too much for him to handle. So if there is only one adult home, Max is often alone. It makes my heart break.
To have a support dog to provide unconditional love and companionship would be world-changing for Max’s sense of security and peace. We’ve read many accounts of how the dogs can help a child accommodate more sensory input than ever before, and we hope this will bring him back to full participation in family activities. To have him feel safe at night would be world-changing for us parents. To be alert and thriving on a full night’s sleep would be a miracle!
And if a dog could help Max feel comfortable enough to engage more with the community, it would be life-changing for all of us. Even just knowing we wouldn’t lose him in a crowd would give me so much peace of mind. We could all come out of isolation and enjoy things like family gatherings and nature walks again.
Max is such a creative, hilarious, brilliant person that I can scarcely imagine what he might contribute to society if he could get a good night’s rest and feel safe and connected to the world during the day. If he dog could help him socialize and feel comfortable being with people and making friends, as I’ve read about in other Autism Dog success stories, that would be amazing too. Thank you for considering a donation of any size to help our boy get a service dog.
Why we chose Autism Service Dogs BC Association? By: Deanna Partridge-David