“What do you do when you can’t keep your child safe when you’re out and about anymore?
What do you do when your child sees no danger, they just run? And boy is he fast. I often say he would give Usain Bolt a run for his money. He just keeps going. Nothing is in his sights — not a car, a bus, or a person. He just runs.
When my little boy was diagnosed with autism at 2 years and 9 months, he was small. He was cute. I could pick him up when we were out and about. He was in a stroller and it was okay because he still looked like a baby. As he grew, the comments started.
‘Isn’t he too big to be in a stroller?’
‘Shouldn’t he be walking?’
I would answer that he was in there for his own safety. But because autism is a hidden disability, no one understood what I meant.
We moved to a special needs stroller, and while he would sit in it, he hated to be in there. He wanted to be free. He wanted to run. But I could not manage him out and about anymore. I couldn’t catch him when he ran because he was so fast. I couldn’t keep my little boy safe anymore. And that is a hard thing to admit. Because as a mom, you are meant to be their protector. You are meant to be able to look after them, to make sure they are safe.
I couldn’t do that.
And then we got the phone call. He had reached the top of the list for an autism service dog. A dog who would give him his independence, give him confidence, and give him his very own best friend. This dog would change his whole life. I couldn’t believe we got so lucky.
We did a puppy program — a one-of-a-kind program run by My Canine Companion, a charity here in Ireland — and I saw my little boy grow with his dog. I saw a bond form I could never have imagined. He wanted to interact with her. He wanted to play with her. My nonverbal little boy signed for the very first time… and the word was ‘dog.’ I saw life come into him I could never have imagined.
Throughout the whole program, Riley and his service dog, Willow, became inseparable. They were as thick as thieves. She was the first thing he went to in the morning and the last thing he kissed at night. She was his protector. She was his safety blanket. She was his best friend.
In December of 2018, Willow graduated as a fully qualified service dog. That was the day my little boy’s life changed forever.
The day he got his independence back.
The day we ditched the stroller.
He was attached to his best friend, with the most important belt he would ever wear. A belt that was attached to Willow’s jacket. She was now his anchor. He could not run. He could not bolt. He could walk independently.
Riley’s whole world opened up. We have never looked back. He can now go to the shops, he can go to the cinema, we can go for walks. Willow not only anchors him, but she also keeps him calm when they are out together. He rubs her fur, she licks his hands, and together they can take on the world.
I always say we don’t realize how lucky we are to have dogs in this world.
But I know how lucky I am to have her. She has given my son a sense of independence that I, as his mom, could never have given him. She can keep him safe in a way I never could. She can calm him in a way no human can. She can make him smile with one kiss, can turn tears into laughter, and she adores him, looking for nothing but love in return. She is the reason we can do ‘normal’ everyday things, like a walk in the park or a trip to the shops.
And most of all, when friends are hard to find, she has given my son a best friend. One who constantly puts a smile on his face, who makes him laugh beyond belief, and who is right there with him through the good and the bad times.
Autism service dogs have a big job. A job that is so, so important. A job that we, as humans, cannot do.
She is his lifeline into this crazy world.
So please, if you see a service dog out and about, ask questions, wave to say hello, and tell them what a good job they are doing. But do not distract them. Because they are working hard to keep little boys, like mine, safe.
And we as parents will be forever grateful to them.”