Autistic children find comfort with dogs

Rebecca Heibein worries about the dangers her son could unknowingly stumble into.

Colton Heibein

Colton Heibein

WATERLOO, Ont. — Rebecca Heibein worries about the dangers her son could unknowingly stumble into.

Colton has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized by social difficulties and repetitive behaviours and interests.

When he gets upset or frustrated, which is suddenly and intensely, Colton bolts to find a place where he can be alone.

That’s OK when the six-year-old is in his family’s Waterloo home, but can be dangerous when Colton is somewhere unfamiliar.

“He has absolutely no concept about what’s happening around him,” his mother said.

And that’s not her only concern. Colton also talks with strangers and sees all adults as friends.

“He doesn’t understand that someone could hurt him,” Heibein said.

She’s hoping a furry new friend will keep Colton safe, and also give him companionship and independence.

Colton is waiting for a dog that’s specially trained to help children with autism from Autism Dog Services, a Lynden, Ont. based charity. He was approved in June, although the wait is at least a year before he’ll welcome home his own dog.

While the family waits, they’re spending time with autism service dogs in training for Colton to become accustomed to a four-footed companion.

Heibein and her husband have already seen amazing changes.

Along with the meltdowns sparked by being overwhelmed, Colton has been suffering increasingly from anxiety. Calming him takes concentrated effort from his parents, but now Colton finds comfort in the dog at his side.

“You can visibly see the anxiety leave his body,” Heibein said.

When anxious or upset, Colton cuddles with a dog and takes deep breaths like his mother taught him.

“He’ll sit there and pet the dog,” she said. “Now he’s calming himself down.”

One weekend, they took Colton and a service dog to the busy St. Jacobs market and walked through the packed main building. Normally that loud, crowded environment would be far too much for him to handle.

“That’s something we never would have tried otherwise,” she said.

Yet Colton did amazingly well, staying focused on his dog and navigating through the crowd without becoming upset.

“This was not the same child,” Heibein said.

The dogs are a huge comfort to the children, said Ron Baron, who’s a volunteer trainer. He’s also fostering Max, a 15-month-old yellow Labrador retriever-in-training. Most of the autism service dogs are Labs, but there are also golden retrievers because both breeds are gentle and patient.

Often the children have trouble communicating, and that’s frustrating. But it’s not a worry with dogs.

“They can communicate very well with the dogs,” Baron said.

Most of a dog’s job is to be a comfort, he said, but also to protect a child from danger such as walking away with an adult or into traffic. The dog’s working vest has a belt that attaches around the child’s waist.

Baron has noticed autistic children are more calm and focused with a dog at their side.

“It’s really a big, fuzzy pillow,” he said.

Autism Dog Services started in 2006 and has placed 30 dogs with families, who are encouraged to fundraise to help with the high cost of training and supporting the dogs.

Children who have received a dog fit across the autism spectrum, ranging from mild to more severe. All can benefit.

“It’s amazing the different possibilities,” program co-ordinator Allison Savard said.

The dogs provide opportunities for socializing, safety and comfort, and can encourage responsibility in the child. Savard and the team work with a family to figure out how best the dog can help them. For the child, Savard said, the goal is to “reach their best potential with their dog.”

Heibein hopes her son, who has trouble connecting with children his age, will find a good companion in his dog.

She’s also optimistic Colton will gain confidence and freedom. He wants to go to the neighbourhood playground on his own like his older sister McKenna, but now that’s out of reach because he’s unaware of dangers.

“We’re hoping ultimately that it gives him more independence.”