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.