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Expert Advice

FIRST PERSON: How a dog changed my autistic son's life

A mum shares how a Therapy Dog worked miracles for her son's health and wellness.

By Fiona Wright
Jodie Mizzi's son Charlie was diagnosed with medium level Autism when he was 3 – he's now 7. Charlie was non-verbal and wasn't able to sleep through the night. Going to the toilet was also a struggle because he found it frightening.
When Jodie stumbled upon videos about dog therapy on a Facebook group for Autistic kids, she applied to Guide Dogs and eight months later got Yatsy. As soon as the dog arrived, Charlie slept through the night. He would call Yatsy and clap twice and the dog follows him in to the room and even bathroom.
Charlie went from non-verbal to now speaking fluently and Jodie puts that to Charlie gaining confidence from walking with Yatsy and people coming and asking him about his dog.
The Therapy Dogs Program is a community by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. Therapy Dogs may provide comfort, companionship and emotional support to individuals and those attending or residing in facilities whom experience behavioural, emotional and mental health conditions, physical disabilities, or isolation caused by age or illness.
Jodie and her son Charlie appearing on 'Pet Power' on Insight on Tuesday, 11 June at 8.30pm on SBS. (Image: supplied)
Here's Jodie's story...
I am a mother of six children including a seven-year-old boy, Charlie, who was diagnosed with Autism and a Global Development Delay at 3.5 years. At the time of diagnosis Charlie struggled to manage his emotions (self-regulate), communicate verbally (severe language delay) and seemed to find it difficult to pick up the skills to make friends. Often at pre-school Charlie would avoid activities if his peers were there. He circled around the room so he could engage in activities alone.
To add to the situation, Charlie never slept in his own bed. The sleep deprivation increased my son's irritability and heightened my anxiety. Parents with little to no sleep and sharing a bed with a little one will understand.
Toilet training was also a biggy! Initially Charlie would hide to toilet and was completely terrified of sitting on a toilet. Toileting was a stressful event. I never thought it would end! Cleaning up poo forever wasn't a lifelong goal of mine that was for sure. At the time of diagnosis it felt like Charlie was entering meltdown after meltdown.
The diagnosis in itself was not particularly helpful but labeling your child opens doors for funding which assists with the costs of intervention services. It unfortunately confirmed our fears, this was confronting but helped us create a path and establish goals.
Between the ages of 3-5 we engaged in a multitude of therapies. These included intensive Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Psychology, and other Early Intervention Services. Progress was slow due to Charlie's inability to accept strategies and intervention. Charlie was so irritable and anxious that at times we would only get through 15 minutes of therapy.
Life was feeling like a treadmill…too many scheduled appointments that were not having a huge impact. My mind didn't stop! What have I missed? What else can I do? What I did become was a fantastic researcher of all things Autism. Amidst this research journey I stumbled across videos of other children with Autism. The videos contained footage of bond between them and their Therapy Dogs. The videos made me howl like a baby. Watching children who rarely let anyone into their world connect with an animal looked so joyful.
Further research ended up pointing me towards Guide Dogs. YES! What a fantastic association. Not only did they train dogs for people with sight impairment but they also developed a program that assisted people with all kinds of needs. Guide Dogs, Pets as Therapy Program was going to be the answer to all my prayers! I applied and waited with baited breath to see if we would be accepted.
Charlie and his Therapy Dog, Yahtzee had an immediate connection. (Image: supplied)
After some time, Charlie was awarded Yahtzee, the Pets as Therapy dog of our dreams. From the very first day Yahtzee changed Charlie's life. Charlie bonded with Yahtzee straight away. The first night Yahtzee and Charlie went to bed together and Charlie slept through the night in his own bed. Even though I had my bed back I thought the spell would break at some point. I lied there wide-awake thinking I would need to resettle Charlie at some point. Nope! Not once! All night they slept together. Hallelujah! One prayer down and several to go!
The following morning Charlie, on his own, clapped his hands twice, called out to Yahtzee, and his new fury friend would follow. Noticing this I would ask Charlie to invite Yahtzee to the toilet every time he needed to go. He liked to show Yahtzee all the things he could do…including poo's on the toilet. Although I am sure Yahtzee was delighted, you wouldn't find more joyous parents than us when 3 days later Charlie was INDEPENDENTLY TOILETING with Yahtzee. I knew then we were on to something.
We have now had Yahtzee in our home for 2 years. Throughout this time I have wrapped Charlie's therapies around Yahtzee. Yahtzee became the backdoor to therapies we never knew we needed. He provided a calming influence to Charlie's behavior where therapies became easier to implement. Even if Yahtzee wasn't in his presence the lasting effect of a Therapy Dog assisted with keeping Charlie calm. Charlie started accepting therapies and seemed to be able to relate to his environment. Socially he now had a tool that became an icebreaker in conversation. My son started to relate to others and Yahtzee was building those bridges to connect with Charlie's community. I felt like somebody could have pinched me, it was just too good to be true.
Charlie's life changed when he met Yahtzee. (Image: supplied)
Yahtzee has become the glue in our family. He continues to provide Charlie with a non-judgmental listener and gives Charlie the courage to try new things. I wish I knew about Therapy Dogs even before the diagnosis. It's a life changer! Charlie now has a mild to moderate speech delay. This in itself is amazing. There was a time when we wondered if he would ever be able to communicate with us or even want to. I hope that our story helps others in finding their calm in the storm in their journey of living with disability. No longer do we have meltdown after meltdown. Charlie attends school where he is happy to learn and make friends. What more could parents want?
Yahtzee has now begun to spread his therapy greatness to others, where he works in the Canine Court Companionship Program, assisting victims of domestic violence. I share him with St. Brendan's Catholic Primary School, where two days a week we assist Year 3 students by minimizing anxieties, boosting attendance and increasing the joy in the classroom. Teachers have the ability to be flexible in using Yahtzee for learning. Off duty, Yahtzee loves camping, swimming and relaxing at home with his big family. I feel that Yahtzee is a privilege to have as part of our family and I am excited for our future together.
For more information, tune into 'Pet Power' on Insight on Tuesday, 11 June at 8.30pm on SBS.

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