Tuesday, 29 May 2012

29th May - An uncanny resemblance

Just a quickie...on my trawl of YouTube this week, I found this video of a family in Adelaide, Australia.  I am sharing it as it amazed me the similarities between this family and ours.  The boys, the dog, it all just seemed very familiar territory, and I think it is a great example of how this relationship can work. They have had their autism dog for 4 months, but its good to see the attachment walking done the same way, and see how the relationship develops.

Or click this link

I am being brief today as Alex had me awake between 1 and 5am, so I am a little bleary eyed.  We are working on keeping him in his own bed.  Wish you could buy patience on Amazon.com.  Yet another day where housework seems to be at the bottom of my list. Ho hum, dust never killed anyone :)

Monday, 28 May 2012

28th May - a little video

Just to show you a little video of the first hour of Alex and Lucie together on Friday....(if you click on the You Tube symbol, it will take you through to You Tube where you can select full screen which may be easier to see, or is my eyesight just getting worse with age?)

We survived the first weekend very well.  Highlights were going to Asda, and just seeing Lucie so calm and looking like she had always lived here.  She has made herself at home with no trouble at all.  Low points, were her going nuts at the neighbour who popped his head over the fence to say hello.  She growled at him, and the first time I heard her bark...though in fairness, we couldn't see more than the top of his head and eyes, a funny viewpoint for anyone, so maybe she was a little freaked.  I was!

Night two was great, with no disturbances, and got up three times last night to resettle Lucie.  But all easily done, so sticking to Plan A.

This morning was Alex's first training session for attachment work, learning to walk with Lucie attached with a waist strap, and a handle to hold.  I was delighted with how well they coped.  I was asked by Michelle to pick a short walk with few distractions.  I failed in that task by managing to pick a route which i perceived as quiet as it is good for the kids, but not seen it from a dogs perspective. So Lucie had to deal with a greyhound sniffing around, cyclists, traffic...you get the drift.  But she did cope and didn't bolt up a tree after a squirrel leaving Alex hanging from a high branch, so I call that a success!

Alex's reward for his good work was a new app on his ipad, the Sesame Street Count doing number games - it may be three days before i can get him off....

Friday is our second session, so I will be doing a few things to build up my work with her in the meantime.  Lots to do still on making sure she doesn't pull on the lead, or get a squirrel snack, but getting better.

Probably best not to mention that it looks like Dave is allergic to Lucie....if I ignore this will it go away?  Does the power of positive thinking overcome allergies - it better.  Thank goodness no carpets downstairs and she is not much of a furry fiend.  One hurdle at a time.

This sun is not letting up, do you think the weather was ordered this way to give me a rose tinted view of dog walking....just wait till proper Lancashire weather sets in.  Woolly socks at the ready....

Saturday, 26 May 2012

26th May - Our girl is home!

Lucie came home to join the family yesterday.  It was wonderful.

We got her all settled before the boys got home from school, then got through the excitement with the kids.  I got some nice video which once I work out how to post, I will, showing Alex meeting Lucie.  Here are a couple of photos we got of her on her first afternoon in our house with Alex.

The boys loved watching her play, but the real test was how things would go when all the excitement had died down.  I made the rather odd decision to take the family for a quick walk, just like a regular dog walk, not in jacket, as Alex is getting his training next week.  It was tough, handling dogs, balls, kids and husband. Note to self - take it easy!  And last night we got Lucie settled into Alex's room.  It was a little like a scene from Supernanny as I was up regularly putting Lucie back in her bed as she wandered into our room or lay in the hall.  But my theory is start how you mean to continue, so I persisted, which i hope will get easier as routine establishes.
And today I took her for a very long walk on my own which was huge fun, and felt more in control.  It is scorching hot today, so keeping activity low, but felt brave enough to try our local Asda.  I wanted to do some jacket work before she thought she was on holiday.  We walked there and back, and I was SO proud - just text book.  A busy Saturday afternoon, and she took it all in her stride.  Wonderful.
So now is the scary bit, where for two years everyone else has invested their time and effort to getting Lucie to a point she can help someone, and I now feel the burden of responsibility in carrying on all the work, and making sure she performs as she is trained to do.  But I have to say, delighted with the first 24 hours.  She is using her toileting area that Dave built for her, and is behaving better than anyone else in the house....oh - I should mention the poor moggy.  In retrospect the cat introductions could have been slightly better planned than the rodeo that became the chaos of cat meet dog.  Erm ...lesson learned...so we did a controlled introduction, and now cat is upstairs, dog downstairs, and we wait to see what unfolds...watch this space!

It is too hot to sit indoors at a laptop, and family demanding my attentions, so enough for now.

Monday, 21 May 2012

21st May Week 2 of training

Back in Sheffield again for week 2 of training.  Having had a terrible time on Friday in the supermarket trying to negotiate the busy aisles with a trolley and a dog, I was a little disheartened.  Though I did try to tell Michelle, my trainer, that I cannot manage a trolley at any time, the dog was a mere distraction in an environment I usually meltdown in.  Still, on the upside, I did get as far as the wine aisle, so all was not lost.

Today was a practice at Meadowhall Shopping Centre, and another trip to Pets at Home, as tomorrow morning I have my first Public Access Test.  This means I will be tested on my handling of Lucie, so that I qualify to take her home (like a learner driver) on probation training for six months, before the big test to qualify as her handler.  So after a good day today I am less nervous about tomorrow.

Anyway - I said I would let you know what an autism dog is, so let me give an outline.  There are some TV dramas and books on this, which whilst very entertaining, can give a rather over glamorised view of the possibilities of an assistance dog.  The classic line seems to be somehow (and especially if you believe in miracles) your child will start to talk when this magic dog joins the family.  Whilst there is a lot of basis to think your child communication skills may improve, its more about the nuts and bolts of daily life where you would expect to see the greatest impact....so what may we hope to change with an assistance dog?  I'll do a list, as I like lists!

- Improved mobility - your child is harnessed to the dog, whilst I as handler control the dog by a second lead.  This system helps your child walk safely in difficult environments, and learn to walk calmly. For kids who bolt off, or stop dead, this can really improve with attached walking with the dog.

- Bonding with an animal - the uncomplicated relationship with an animal with no social or verbal demands can be an ideal friend for an autistic child.  This bond can raise the confidence and improve social interactions with the child.

- Reduce stress - your child may often be stressed at transition or in new or challenging environments.  Having the dog with them, as their friend and almost like a comfort blanket, it can give them a calm confidence to manage more challenging situations

- Learning self help skills - by caring for the dog, with their grooming, cleaning teeth, feeding and toileting, you can expect the child to gain a greater awareness of their own needs, and transfer some skills to learning how to care for themselves more

- Social interactions - sharing, turn taking, empathy and understanding can all be developed by simple games with the dog like hide and seek, or throw/catch games, leading to more complex play

- More appealing to public - where our kids may avoid the public interactions, having a dog can invite interest, and help to create positive friendships

- Improved stress levels for the whole household - regular outdoor walking, improved confidence in community places, and the pleasure of owning a dog, can really help the whole family to gain from the relationship.

That's obviously not an exhaustive list but gives a starting point.  The real beauty is the sky is the limit on where you can take the advantages of an assistance dog, as the more you put in the more you can all get out if it.  Keeping it simple to start, just to try and improve one thing at a time is the key aim, and then you can get more ambitious as the relationship is established and confidence improves.  Like our children, dogs will have good and bad days, and can only deal with so much.  They are not machines, or little people, and like us, will have ups and downs.  So this journey will be chequered as we navigate that.

By the way - I should mention, I am also discovering the cost of owning a dog!  I barely filled a quarter of a basket at the pet store today on a few essentials and spent £85, and that is not to mention the insurance I need to buy this week.  And lets not discuss food costs just yet!  So the commitment as an owner is both in your time, energy, compromises and wallet.  A big commitment not to be taken lightly.  But one I am certain will pay back many times over in the opportunities Lucie and Alex will share.

It is 5pm and tonight I have the rare treat of being able to go out for dinner with a great friend.  A real pleasure to feel free for the night.  It was hard leaving the family this morning for another week, not only because I miss them, but also knowing Dave has a big job working full time, and sorting the kids out, with not much sleep.  I have some guilt, but for tonight, I shall enjoy my freedom, and hopefully it will take my mind off my test in the morning......watch this space - I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

17th May 2012 - Bit of background

SO tired - had a full day out training, taking Lucie into shopping centres, going for lunch, and most tricky of all, Pets at Home, walking past all the rabbits and animals!  But before I get into all that, let me wind the clock back and let you know why I am even walking a dog through supermarkets and shops in the first place.

In May 2005 my son Thomas was born.  All was trundling along fine until his health visitor check up at 8 months old.  I was told he had developmental delay and we were soon referred.  He now has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and Dyspraxia (a fine and gross motor skills delay). In the meantime we had our second son, Alex in September 2006.  I know - only a 16 month age gap, planning was never my strong point.  Alex seemed to be fine, a huge relief as we were fully in the swing of dealing with Thomas.  And then he got passed his first birthday and what we now know to be the classic symptoms of severe autism started.  He withdrew into his own world, lost all speech sounds, and had excessive tantrums as he failed to cope with the world around him. He was formally diagnosed with autism at around 2 years old.

A lot has happened since then as we have got to grips with living in the world of autism.  Our boys go to different schools, Thomas doing really well with a little support at mainstream primary and Alex making fantastic progress at his special autism school, which he has been attending for 3 years now.   But we still have a number of challenges which have been difficult to manage ourselves, and here is where Lucie comes in.

Four months after Alex was diagnosed, I heard about the Autism Assistance Dogs programme.  At the time, there was only one charity training these specialist dogs, and that was Support Dogs (www.support-dogs.org.uk) based in Sheffield.  The waiting list was over two years due to the high demand and I soon made the decision to get on the waiting list, while we worked out our next move, and give us time to think.

Over the next few years, it became apparent Alex had a wonderful interest in animals, to the point when his speech started to develop again, the only words he would attempt were animal names.  He also had a very attentive interest in animals, at a time when little engaged him.  So the link with animals captured our attention.  I would not say we are a particular animal family, aside from our cat, Woody, who is a slightly nowty (good Lancashire word!) addition to our house.  In fact, for my husband Dave, I think animals had a distinctive negative connection of responsibility and hassle with little benefit.  So there was a mountain to climb.  But we had time.  I started to research the connection between autism and assistance dogs, and the more I looked the more our difficulties seemed to match the potential this relationship had to offer.  But this doesn't mean a dog in our chaotic house was going to work, so I needed to dig deeper.

I became aware of a second charity, Dogs for Disabled, (http://www.dogsforthedisabled.org/) who had started their own Autism Dogs programme.  Unfortunately we did not qualify to apply as they only cover the Oxfordshire area, and also do not accept applications from a house where more than one child is diagnosed, so that seemed a dead end.  But a more interesting option came to light.  On the back of the problems faced by demand far exceeding supply, assistance dogs are not an option for many.  In addition, many people either have a pet dog or want to get one, that they can train to take on many of the skills and benefits of an AAD (Autism Assistance Dog).  So Dogs for Disabled designed a wonderful course, running nationwide called PAWS - Parents of Autism Workshop.  I attended a number of sessions in Leeds which gave me a fantastic insight into the high and lows and possibilities of owning a pet dog.  It gave me a grounded view of how animals and children can exist together in a mutually positive relationship.

I was so enthused from my PAWS course, that I was itching to run out and buy a labrador and put my learning into practice, but I was also really aware that it would be a lot of hard work, and at the end we would still not have public access.  So the priority was to be patient and wait for our Support Dogs application to be processed.  I was delighted that this spring, after 3 years on the waiting list we were successful in our interview with Support Dogs, and accepted onto the programme.

Lucie visited us in April and within minutes he and Alex were magical together.  I was fighting the emotion as I watched the two of them play together so beautifully.  3 hours flew by, and I could barely sleep awaiting the news of the outcome of the visit.  From that week I have not come down from the high knowing Lucie will be part of Alex's future.  So I am here on the last hurdle before Lucie can join us at home.  I need two weeks training at the centre in Sheffield in order to learn how to handle Lucie, and ensure I can continue the work that has been put into her training over the last two years.  Every moment is so fantastic, working with such a pro.  

Well that's enough for one day, but next time I will share a little more about what an autism assistance dog is and how she may help my son have a better quality of life.  Its great to fall asleep knowing tomorrow I will receive an excitable welcome and wagging tail from our new girl.  Now that's a reason to wake up and start your day with a smile.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

16th May 2012 Welcome to my Assistance Dog Journey

Lucie: Our Autism Assistance Dog - Chapter 1
Residential Training: May 2012

This is Lucie.  She is a special dog.  A cross breed of a curly coat retriever and black labrador.  But what makes Lucie really special is she is soon to join my family as my sons autism assistance dog.  My journey over the last 7 years raising two boys on the Autistic Spectrum has been an absolute rollercoaster of agony, giggles, challenges, successes and most of all a lot of wine!  But until now I have felt my journey is like so many others on the unpredictable path of raising children with special needs.  But Lucie is making me feel differently.  For the first time on this tempestuous ride I feel hope, happiness and excitement that Lucie is bringing a positive change into our family. I would like to share this journey, and all that it brings. 

So with all the anticipation of our new future in mind, I set about to find out what a blog is and try to write one.  They say "there is a book in all of us", I'm not sure where I am keeping mine, (though I suspect there is a small library hiding in my hips), but a blog seemed more bitesize for me.  So if you are interested in how this little adventure goes, please feel free to read my updates.  

So where to start - well, certainly not at the beginning, as too many hours watching 'Horizon' tells me we still don't know where and how it all began.  So maybe I should start with where I am right now.  Sitting in a hotel room in Sheffield in the middle of residential training.  A fancy phrase but really what it means is that Lucie has spent two years training to be an awesome professional working dog, and I arrive as a rank amateur hoping to be able to take over from her trainer as her handler and new trainer.  And I am now on day 3 of my training.  I have a lot to catch up on to get to Lucie's high standards, and if the next two weeks go well I will be able to take Lucie home with me to Lancashire next Friday. 

Its late and these are busy days, so I will update tomorrow on what the training entails, and then I will go back and let you know a little more about how I got to being in this hotel room in Sheffield, and what an autism dog is really all about.  For now.  Sleep.  The greatest luxury of all.