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
"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
"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.
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