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A Parents’ Story

The Saunders Family

Just like any parents, Rowen and Eric Saunders are justly proud of their four year old son, Oak’s achievements.  He is a chatty, engaging little boy and like many boys of his age his favourite things are Thomas the Tank Engine and playing with diggers, he also absolutely loves animals and other residents in the house are a goldfish, a bird, a rabbit and two dogs.

But Oak has (and still is) overcoming huge challenges.  Oak was a happy and healthy baby, at just over a year old he had begun to speak a few words and would interact with the world around him. Shortly after he reached fifteen months of age though, his parents noticed some dramatic changes to Oak’s development.  Rowen, Oak’s mother explains: “The Oak we knew and loved disappeared from our lives.  Oak stopped communicating with us; he lost all his speech and no longer made eye contact.”

The first steps were to test Oak for loss of hearing.  Rowen continues: “it seemed the most logical reason as to why he was no longer engaging with us, but the tests all came back negative. Oak’s hearing was fine.

“Coupled with the change in Oak’s communication we also noticed changes in behaviour.  Oak found it difficult to cope with new things or go outside of our home, he would have huge meltdowns over putting shoes on or getting dressed, identifying these activities with a change to his routine that he seemed to find too much to cope with.”

 Oak was diagnosed with autism at 2 and 3 quarters years of age (March 2009).  The devastating news was difficult for his parents to digest, but they decided quickly to research the condition, learn more and try different activities to try to help reach Oak.  “Our little boy, who had loved us, cuddled and responded to our touch and voices, was no longer there; instead he was a frightened, isolated shell.  As a parent, your instincts to help, support and protect your child kick in, that’s exactly what we decided to do.”

We tried lots of different things, but a breakthrough really came because of Oak’s fascination with animals.  A weekend spent with a charity that used horse therapy to help children with ASD resulted in Oak talking for the first time since he was 15 months old – he was now 3 and a half.  “It was the most amazing thing, since then Oak has continued to make incredible leaps forward.”

 Part of his progress has also been down to the family’s two dogs, Gypsy an eleven year old cocker spaniel and Boogie, an exuberant 18 month old cocker spaniel cross King Charles spaniel. “Boogie in particular has been a brilliant source of help.  We noticed that Oak was far happier to go out if it was to walk Boogie so we started to use Boogie as a help to getting Oak to the shops or even just to go to the park.”

Researching more about the link between animals and children with autism the family discovered PAWS, a service provided by charity Dogs for the Disabled specifically aimed at using a pet dog to help a child with autism in social and emotional development.

PAWS takes the format of three day-long workshops which have grown from the experiences of Dogs for the Disabled’s work training assistance dogs and recognizes the incredibly calming affect that a dog can have on a child with ASD.  Workshops take parents through everything from basic obedience training to training specific tasks, all centered around building solid, positive relationships between a pet dog and child to help with so many aspects of family life.

Rowen continues: “The workshops were great for us.  They confirmed a lot of what we’d already experienced at home but they also helped us to develop some new ideas to try to help Oak through Boogie.

“Oak had demonstrated real signs of stress and anxiety around getting dressed and putting his shoes on – mainly because he associated them with leaving the house and having to do something he didn’t want to do.  The workshops helped us come up with a plan where Boogie would bring Oak his socks, shoes and a jumper from Oak’s bedroom down to where he was playing in the living room.  Boogie relished the training and it was a delight to see and hear Oak smiling and laughing as he put on his socks and shoes rather than the previous protests.”

Rowen has also used other techniques she learnt from the workshops, by using a ‘pretend’ Boogie voice.  “Oak hated showing us any pictures that he’d drawn and would be fiercely protective or destroy them as soon as they were made.  By getting Boogie to ‘ask’ if he could see the pictures Oak has slowly opened up.  It may sound like a small thing, but I think these sort of techniques may have uses in other areas of Oak’s development as well.

 “In the last few months Oak has made huge leaps in his progress and I believe both Boogie and the help we have received from the PAWS project have been very much part of his success. A simple trip to the park can now be a happy family event – a definite change to the stressful scenes we once encountered.  We are so proud of the things Oak has managed to overcome despite huge challenges and it’s great to find help in such a positive and relatively simple thing – the humble pet dog!”

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