When 13-year-old Ethan Brown's mom told him he couldn't get an Xbox 360, Ethan's immediate response was to lay down next to his dog, Apple, and pour his heart out about his disappointment. For Ethan's mom Maureen, that moment gave her great hope that bringing home an assistance dog for Ethan, who has autism, was the right thing to do.
The Brown family adopted Apple two years ago from the North Star Foundation, a non-profit organization in Connecticut that places and trains dogs for children with autism. When Apple came into their lives, the Browns had no idea what to expect.
"We didn't know exactly what we wanted for Ethan. We didn't know what we were going to experience, but she's become a companion for him and all the kids," says Maureen of Chicago, who along with her husband Phil has four other boys between the ages of 6 and 15. "But Ethan talks to Apple and she knows all his secrets."
Apple has also proved astute in understanding that Ethan requires special care, especially out in public. When the family took Ethan and Apple to Springfield two years ago, shortly after getting the dog, Maureen was holding Apple's leash and Ethan walked nearby. When Apple noticed that Ethan was getting too far ahead of his mother, the dog began to pull at the leash so that Maureen would catch up to Ethan.
Special training required
That's exactly what Patty Dobbs Gross, who founded North Star, hopes for when she places a dog with a family. Gross, who has a son with autism, had purchased a service dog for her son Daniel when he was 4. But she soon realized that dogs trained to help disabled individuals don't always have the right skills to help children with autism.
Service dogs are often trained to perform specific skills, such as turn on light switches. But assistance dogs for children with autism are dealing more with social and emotional disabilities, so a new training method had to be developed.
"We start by picking a pup that's a good fit with the child. Each child with autism is different and we have to handpick the pup," Gross says. And unlike traditional service dogs, which are trained before meeting their families, North Star dogs are trained near the family and receive regular visits from the child and family they will be placed with so that bonding begins early.
"I see my dogs as tools and if a parent says, 'My child is displaying a lot of anxiety before bed,' then I might suggest using the dog as a tool for that," Gross explains. "We're preparing the dog to keep the child company, rather than the parent, so for example we might take pictures of the dog and child by the child's bed and show the child that the routine is, 'I'm going to bed with my dog.' "
North Star trainers also teach the dogs to remain calm in public and during a child's meltdown, even if it takes place in a public area. The dogs wear vests identifying them as assistance dogs, which makes it easier for others to understand that this is a child with special needs, something that's not always evident since most autistic children do not look disabled.
"It's really difficult to bring autistic children in public and the assistance dog is often key to getting the child into the public," Gross says.
Maureen Brown's sister Kathy, who
helped the family find North Star, agrees. "I think it's a
signal (to have an assistance dog)," she says. "There are still so many people who don't understand
autism and think, 'Oh why can't that mother control her kid.' "
During training, North Star trainers play games with the dogs that later can save a child's life. "We play hide and seek, which teaches search and rescue," Gross says. "There have been three times that a North Star dog has helped a child stay safe who has wandered. The three times that our kids wandered, they were found with the dog and people read the dog's tags. We also had a dog that nipped the little boy all the way home when this child wandered. He knew to bring the child home."
So far North Star has placed 80 dogs around the country. They'd like to place more, but lack of funding has kept the organization on the verge of bankruptcy and only 1 percent of children with autism will actually be able to get an assistance dog. To cover the costs of the dogs and training, North Star must charge families $5,000 per dog, which requires many families to fundraise to afford the dog.
Although she has considered folding the organization several times, Gross keeps hanging on because she knows North Star has helped so many children and there are so many more waiting for help. Plus, bringing a dog into the family of a child with autism is often one of the few positive events for the child's siblings, whose lives are also affected by autism.
"It's something all the brothers can share together. It's fun to see them all doting over Apple," Maureen says. "It makes it seem like we're just a run-of-the-mill family, no labels-just like any other family."
For more information on North Star Foundation check out its Web site at www.northstardogs.com.
Liz DeCarlo, who lives in Darien, is the editor of Chicago Parent Going Places and the calendar editor of Chicago Parent. She is mom to Anthony, 13, Emma, 11, and Grace, 8.