Tethered to a Friend – Written by Kelley Atherton, The Daily Triplicate
March 17, 2010 10:26 am
Dog accompanies autistic student to grade school
Wendy Going noticed her son Kegan had a natural inclination toward animals.
Whenever Kegan saw an animal he would start making sounds — talking in his own way. This was unusual for the boy because most of the time he’s silent, his mother said.
Kegan is autistic.
This week, Kegan, 8, brought his autism service dog Everett with him to Smith River Elementary School for the first time. Everett is expected to help Kegan stay calm and safe, both inside and outside the classroom.
It was also a chance for Kegan’s classmates to be introduced to the golden retriever and how they should act around him.
“I saw how animals had an effect on him,” Going said. “He’s more vocal … when animals are around he makes sounds.”
“I don’t know how medically,” she continued, “but that’s the way it seems to me.”
Since Everett has been in Kegan’s life, the difference has been “amazing,” she said.
Before, if she or her husband came into Kegan’s classroom, “his day would be ruined.” With Everett by his side the last few days at school, Kegan has had no reaction to Going sitting a few feet away.
“To be able to sit here and him sit at his desk,” she said, “that was never possible before.”
Community helped raise funds
Everett has been in training since he was a puppy to become an autism service dog, explained his trainer, Kati Rule-Witko, who is also an autism specialist.
The Going family applied to the Autism Service Dogs of America, a non-profit based in Lake Oswego, Ore., and was accepted to receive a dog about a year and a half ago. They then had to raise $13,500 to pay the service dog’s training and other fees.
The Goings had a “bachelor and bachelorette auction” at Elk Valley Casino in November 2008 that raised $9,000, said Wendy Going. The rest of the cost was made up in family contributions and donations.
Most people probably think of service dogs for the blind. However, in the last 30 years, they have been trained to help those with hearing impairments, social disabilities and limited mobility, according to the Autism Service Dogs of America Web site.
To learn more, go to www.autismservicedogsofamerica.com.
Starting as puppies, service dogs live with volunteers who train them in basic obedience. When they’re old enough, they get specialized training to prepare them for being with an autistic child.
Several weeks ago, Everett moved in with the Goings and became accumulated with the family. Then on Monday, Everett went to Kegan’s second-grade class.
A constant calming effect
Kegan was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism, Going said.
“I thought he was going deaf,” she said. “He stopped responding to his name.”
A doctor told Going that Kegan’s hearing was “perfect” and suggested that he might be autistic.
Researching the development disorder, she found out about autism service dogs. Going said she learned that a service dog can have a calming effect on an autistic child because it’s a constant presence in his or her life.
Autistic children like Kegan can have trouble dealing with a change in their routine. Change can over-stimulate the brain, but having service dogs constantly by their side reminds them that one thing hasn’t changed.
“The environment will change, but the constant is always there,” Going added.
When an autistic child is escalating into a fit, the service dog will on command place his head or legs on the child and relieve some of that pressure building inside him or her, Rule-Witko explained.
“They’re seeking to relieve that over-stimulation,” she said, that otherwise might result in children hurting themselves.
When this happens, the dog will “go over and nudge the child,” Rule-Witko said.
“That re-directs the child,” she said, “to have a different train of thought and get them out of that bad place.”
Kegan also feels the need to touch people’s hair or he twists his own, his mother said. When he met Rule-Witko, the first thing he did was try to touch her hair.
When he does this, Kegan is trying to calm himself down from something that is over-stimulating, Rule-Witko said. But, it’s not always appropriate to touch someone’s hair, so he can pet Everett.
Safety and more independence
Everett also keeps Kegan safe. Being tethered to Everett, he can’t run away, which he — like many other autistic children — has done, his mother said.
As the bond between the two grows, Everett will be able to sense if Kegan is having a seizure, a result of of his brain being over-stimulated, and alert an adult.
“That’s a big hope for the family,” Rule-Witko said.
Because Kegan is tethered to Everett, she said, his parents can give him more independence and know he’s safe.
“The child becomes more independent and confident,” she said, “something they wouldn’t have been able to develop.”
It’s been hard to go on family outings or go on vacation because Kegan needs so much attention, Going said.
“The younger kids have needs too,” she said, “that gets lost.”
This past weekend, the whole family went to the mall and zoo in Eureka, something they had not done before.
Learning to live with Everett
Rule-Witko is spending three days, ending today, at the school helping Kegan and everyone else get used to Everett and understand his job as a service dog.
“The fear is the unknown,” she said about bring a service dog into a school. “I spend three days answering questions about how to handle situations.”
Rule-Witko explained to all the students and staff what a service dog does and the rules for being around him, such as no talking to or petting Everett.
A dog can be a big distraction for children, she said, but added, “give it a week and it will be an everyday thing.”
Kegan’s teacher, Nicole Cochran, said that Everett’s presence in the classroom hasn’t required much of an adjustment.
At first, the other students were excited having Everett around and wanted to play with him, but Cochran told them “he has a job to do just like they have a job to do.”
After a while, she said they probably won’t even notice Everett is around.
“It will be part of their school life,” she said.
Principal Paige Swan said that everyone in the school was made aware that a service dog would be on the campus.
Right before Rule-Witko and Everett were set to come to Smith River School, there was some hesitation on the school district’s part, Going said.
Swan said that the proper protocols had to be gone through to avoid any liability issues and make sure everything went as “smooth as possible.”
Kegan will likely have a service dog for the rest of his life because of the comfort and reassurance it gives him, his mother said.
“Once that connection has been made,” she said, “you can’t break it.”