Family of Autistic Child Raising Money For Service Dog

By Andrea Bushee for The Associated Press.

Nashua, N.H. – It would be easier for Michelle Austin to skip the camping trips, the circus and the theme park with her son, Cole, who has autism.

But that is not what she wants for her son, who was diagnosed with the disorder on his fourth birthday, May 30 of this year.

It is hard to deal with him in public places, when he tries to run off or becomes frustrated and acts out when standing in lines, she said. Autism is a brain disorder that begins early in life and affects development in communication, speech and social skills.

“He can’t control a lot of those ideas going on in his head,” she said.
She is hoping to obtain a service dog to help her son emotionally and to keep him safe. She has placed jars next to cash registers throughout north Nashua to collect $14,500 to buy him a dog specially trained to help a person with autism stay safe.

Cole often runs away from Austin in stores and hides in racks of clothing. He doesn’t answer her when she calls him, because he has very limited speaking skills. She also has to worry about her 7-year-old daughter, Mariah, when he runs off. She has taught Mariah to stand near the carriage until they both come back, she said, and the girl tries to help her with Cole.
Austin also needs to watch her son constantly so that he doesn’t get out of their home, about a block away from a busy street. Cole has gotten out the door many times, she said, after she turned her back for just a second, causing her to run after him in a panic.

A service dog would help with all of those things, she said, and would also help relieve some of his anxiety.

Cole can’t tell his mother what he needs. If he is sick, hungry, or frustrated, his only way to communicate is to cry. As Austin spoke about her son Tuesday night in their home, he tried to open the front door. When she stopped him, he cried for several minutes in her arms. Earlier in the week, she said, he was sick. He started acting out and breaking things in the house. She didn’t know what was wrong until she took him to the doctor the next day and found he had an earache.

“It’s sad, because he’s obviously very sad,” she said. “I don’t know if something is hurting or if he wants to go somewhere. I just don’t know what he wants.” The dog that she wants to get would be trained by All Purpose Canines, which provides service dogs for people with autism, seizure disorders, asthma and diabetes.

The dogs can help children like Cole by forming a bond that provides a constant comfort, said Bev Swartz, executive director of All Purpose Canines, in Aberdeen, S.D. The dogs wear a harness that can be attached to a belt on the child, and will keep the child from running out the door.

Children with autism often have no fear, Swartz said, and will step right in front of a car. The service dogs, mainly Labrador or golden retrievers, are trained to stop at every curb. They weigh up to 80 or 90 pounds, she added, and are very effective at anchoring children.

The dogs also help children socially, because other children and adults are attracted to the animals and will often approach the pair to talk, pet the dog, and ask questions, she said.

The company has placed about five dogs with autistic children since it started training them in 2003, Swartz said. It takes about two years to fully prepare the dogs.

The group has about eight people on a waiting list. More and more people are becoming aware of how service dogs can help children with autism, she said. She also knows of a few other organizations that train dogs to work with children with the disorder.

Cole has been approved by All Purpose to receive a dog next summer, but it will cost the family $14,500. Austin, who became disabled several years ago after a head injury, is a single mom and cannot afford to pay that much.
She has put the donation jars with a picture of Cole, and has also received fund-raising help from family members and neighbors. So far she has collected about $1,100.

One of her neighbors, Dea Addis-Simonson, said she feels Cole would benefit from having a service dog. Two of her children, Kierra, 11, and Langden, 9, have both helped raise money for Cole.

Kierra volunteered to collect money as people voted earlier this month in the Nashua elections, collecting about $90. And both kids put their allowance in the jar, their mother said.

“Michelle was in tears and I was in tears,” she said. “Langden said, ‘Cole’s safety is a lot more important that money.'”

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