Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dog is ‘magic leash’ for boy with autism

By Bobbi Mlynar

Life has gotten easier for Andrew Smith since he got a magic leash with Ava, a non-shedding, hypoallergenic Goldendoodle, at the end of it.

Andrew, 6, had struggled with autism and its accompanying symptoms. His tendency to try to escape from stores and church and school worried his family, because he had a talent for slipping away quickly without being seen. Andrew’s disappearing act is a common symptom in autistic children, who may feel compelled to get away from crowds and other situations that overstimulate them.

Ava, a service dog trained for autism, has changed that behavior.

Ordering the dog, waiting for her to be trained and spending two weeks in training themselves was not a simple task for the family. The service dog plus training from 4 Paws for Ability, based in Xenia, Ohio, was expensive — $13,000.

A drive to raise money began in October 2007, with a drive-through restaurant in the parking lot of the family’s church, Messiah Lutheran. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans provided matching funds, and the Jones Foundation added more.

After the money was in hand, Andrew’s mother, Janice Schade, took videos of her son at home, at church, in school and in other settings to send to Xenia so officials there could choose a dog that would be compatible with Andrew’s personality.

In September of last year, the pair went to pick up the dog and spent two weeks in training to learn how to work with her.

Andrew didn’t take to Ava immediately.

“At first he wanted nothing to do with her,” Schade said.

He adjusted to her as a leader, though, and has responded to her guidance.

“It took some time,” Schade said this week. “By the second day he accepted her, but the bonding wasn’t there until about a month ago.”

Ava goes wherever Andrew goes, with a tether or a leash forming the physical connection between them. He seems to rely on her as a stabilizing force.

“Only once did we go to Walmart without her,” Schade said. “I will never do that again. All the time, he was like, ‘Where’s Ava? Where’s Ava?’”

At school, Ava acts as a comforter that calms Andrew when he is agitated or loses his temper.

“She can either lay her head on his lap or reach over and touch him,” Schade said, describing Ada’s ways to calm the boy. “Sometimes she just lays completely over his legs. That pressure calms him. It’s like he forgets why he got upset.”

When he tries to take off and run, Ava immediately lays down; the tether between the pair keeps him from escaping. And should he manage to escape, Ava has been trained to track the boy.

Ava’s help is much appreciated by Julianna Schmid, who teaches Andrew and five other autistic students in the intensive skills class at Neosho Rapids Elementary School.

“We’ve noticed with Ava’s presence, Andrew’s outbursts have calmed way down,” Schmid said. “All we have to do is take Ava to Andrew and say, ‘Got to have the leash.’ We call it ‘the magic leash.’”

When Andrew becomes really angry, he curls up with Ava for a few minutes, and the anger passes. The dog has become so familiar with the boy’s school routine that she automatically leads Andrew toward the next room when it’s time for a classroom change.

Schmid, too, sees the settling effect Ava has on the child, as well as the other children in the classroom.

Schade alerted the school district and its students that Andrew would be coming to school with a service dog. She wanted everyone to know what to expect and to allay any uneasiness the other parents and students might feel.

She needn’t have worried. The district accepted the service dog readily. In fact, Ava went to work immediately — helping another child.

On that first day at Olpe Elementary, where Andrew attends afternoon classes, a young girl ran out toward the playground instead of toward the school.

“She stopped me in my tracks and took off after that little girl,” Schade said.

Schmid said Ava has taught another child, who was exceptionally fearful of animals, not to be afraid.

“She’s the first animal I’ve ever seen that he’s touched,” Schmid said. “It was always, ‘Get away from me.’”

Ada also has darted across the room to extend a comforting paw to an autistic classmate of Andrew’s, and later rushed over to nuzzle a girl who had begun to cry.

“Ava helps with the behavior and safety of the other kids, too,” Schade said.

Unless there are special activities or events, evenings and weekends are time off for Ada and for Andrew. He often heads down the hall to entertain himself on the computer, and Ava is free to do whatever she likes. Sometimes that includes romping outdoors with the family’s malamute, Dog.

Because one of Ava’s jobs is to help Andrew socialize, children and adults are allowed to approach and pet the dog.

Schade calls ahead to make sure that business owners are aware she and her family plan to come in, and carries photocopies of the service-dog statute in case people have questions on whether a dog can be allowed inside their buildings.

“I don’t like showing up without giving advance notice,” she said.

Ada’s equally at home in restaurants or at church, where she stretches out under a table or pew until the activity is over.

She’s accompanied Andrew to the altar at church and mimicked his actions by putting her paws up on the padding.

“She even bows down at the altar,” Schade said.

Ava will get more church experience in May, at Schade’s wedding to Mike Smith.

“She’s going to be a ringbearer with Andrew,” Schade said.


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Friday, January 30, 2009

Autism program at Miramar's Glades Middle School gets rewards

Autism took center stage at Glades Middle School in Miramar as students received gifts and teachers were rewarded for their commitment.


Autistic children and their teachers at Glades Middle School in Miramar were treated to plenty of love last week by Pembroke Pines civic socialite Terry T. Sherman's Action on Autism charity.

Eighteen children each cuddled two or three furry stuffed animals while nine teachers and teaching assistants toted gift bags loaded with classroom supplies and personal cosmetics.

''This is the first time in my 10-year teaching career that anyone from the community showed us from the heart that they care about us,'' teacher Norma Menasche said.

Sherman, who was assisted by lifelong friend Ruby Waxman during the 30-minute giveaway at the school, said the charity is simply a way to show appreciation and support for a community of teachers and students that too often are ignored and unheralded.

It was Sherman's first charity venture outside her hometown of Pembroke Pines.

The charity, established in 2003 and approved by the Broward Education Foundation, provides annual cash and learning-tool donations directly to teachers of autistic programs at Pembroke Pines schools.

Extra gifts like toys for kids and perfume for teachers bring extra smiles.

The charity is an offshoot of Terry T. and Friends, a grass-roots organization that was founded after Sherman disbanded Our Part of the Woods, her first charity. Our Part of the Woods was started in 1994 but ended in 2000 after controversy with board members.

During its existence, Our Part of the Woods donated about $200,000 to Pembroke Pines schools and local children's causes.

Glades Middle School Assistant Principal Anthony Corrente and Principal Krista Herrera were pleased that Sherman crossed the border from Pembroke Pines to Miramar.

Glades Middle School serves children from both cities.

''Autistic students and [their] teachers don't get the recognition that others get because they are a school within a school. But, like anyone, they like the attention and appreciation,'' Corrente said.


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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fruit Fly Brains Provide Clues to Autism Research

Provided by University of Arizona

Linda Restifo and her UA research team are figuring out ways to improve drug treatment for those with mental retardation and autism. (Credit: Jeff Smith)

( -- Linda L. Restifo of the Arizona Research Laboratory at The University of Arizona has developed a highly unique and promising methodology that uses fruit fly brains to screen for drugs that may increase the cognitive functionality of children with mental retardation or autism.

The fruit fly brain has similar proteins and developmental mechanism to those in human brains. Restifo of the laboratory's Division of Neurobiology is testing drugs that are already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine whether and how well those drugs can change the size or shape of genetically abnormal brain neurons.

"It's gratifying to think our research may identify drugs that help combat the behavioral and cognitive symptoms that affect children with mental retardation and autism," said Restifo, who is also a BIO5 Institute member and a UA professor of neurobiology, neurology and also cell biology and anatomy.

"The therapeutic strategy does not promise a cure for autism, bur rather the hope is to increase an individual's functionality," Restifo said.

In a recently completed experiment, Restifo and her research team found several dozen drugs that straighten out curly brain neurons.

The curliness resulted from lack of protein that is thought to be important to brain development. The resounding success of the proof-of-concept study suggests a novel strategy for finding safe and effective drug treatments for mental retardation and autism.

Restifo is the first to use primary neuron culture for drug screening of this type.

To conduct her research, Restifo and members of her lab monitor the size and shape of individual brain cells that have been dissected from the brain of a developing fruit fly at the maggot stage and allowed to grow in a laboratory culture dish.

Each group of cells is treated with a single drug. the drugs selected for use by Restifo come from a collection of about 1,000 known drugs, most of which are already approved by the FDA for other disease uses.

In the neuron bioassay, cells are grown for three days and then observed under the microscope for changes the drug has caused in the shape of the neurons.

"Nobody is using a brain neuron assay in this way for drug screening," Restifo said. "The small size and short life cycle of fruit flies is advantageous at this stage."

Restifo said, over several years, the research team intends to eventually move the experiments to human trials.

"Most assays don't have a drug development slant, and this has enormous potential as a demonstration project," said Michael Cusanovich, who directs the Arizona Research Laboratory.

At the same time Restifo's research has revealed that FDA-approved drugs that straighten out neuron curls, she has discovered that certain other drugs increase neuron curliness.

Restifo is also currently conducting research to determine if drugs that increase neuron curliness would serve as treatments against certain invasive cancers, such as malignant glioma, the most deadly type of brain cancer. She is using the same neuron-culture methodology for the cancer and the autism projects, in both cases seeking therapeutic agents that change the shape of the neurons from the fruit fly brain.

The laboratory is "proud to support Dr. Restifo's groundbreaking research," Cusanovich said. Over the long term, the fact the drugs in this study are being repurposed and are already FDA-approved could make this effort and attractive investment opportunity."


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More evidence pre-term birth tied to autism: study

By Will Dunham

A U.S. study looking at children born more than three months prematurely provided fresh evidence on Thursday linking pre-term birth and autism.

These children were about two to three times as likely to show signs of autism at age 2 as measured in a standard screening tool compared to other children, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Autism refers to a group of developmental problems known as autism spectrum disorders that appear in early childhood and harm one's ability to communicate and interact with others.

Its causes remain unclear, and experts have pointed to possible genetic and environmental factors.

Dr. Karl Kuban of Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, who led the study, said the increased risk for autism indicated in these children may not be directly caused by being born prematurely.

Instead, it is possible that whatever causes a child to have autism also may force an early birth, Kuban said in a telephone interview.

Following earlier research suggesting a link to pre-term birth, the researchers followed 988 U.S. children born very prematurely, at least three months before their due date.

At age 2, the children were evaluated using a screening method in which they are rated on a checklist of 23 behaviors for signs of autism. This tool flags children who may have autism but is not considered a definitive diagnosis.

Typically, a formal diagnosis of autism does not occur until around age 3, Kuban said.

While under 6 percent of children born full-term screen positive for possible autism using this tool, 21 percent of these children scored positive, the researchers said.

Because pre-term babies may have certain developmental problems unrelated to autism that could trigger a positive score, the researchers then excluded children with motor, vision and hearing impairments. Even after doing that, 16 percent of the children scored positive for possible autism.

After also excluding children with cognitive impairment on the premise that it may not be autism related, about 10 percent of the pre-term children still had a positive screening score.
Pre-term birth is associated with a long list of health risks for a baby such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lung problems and vision and hearing loss.

About one in 150 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to U.S. government figures.


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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Helping autistic adults to grow

Program seeks to instill greater self-sufficiency and social skills

By Janice Neumann

Until six months ago, helping prepare dinner or taking out the garbage were monumental challenges for Joey Rosenbloom, who would become overwhelmed and frustrated by simple tasks.

But things changed for the bright, friendly 21-year-old after he enrolled in a program at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights for adults with autism that nurtures social, leisure and vocational skills.

Elim launched the adult program in August, four years after creating a school for autistic children. The Christian ministry has taught students with special needs for more than 50 years.

Rosenbloom, who lives with his family in South Barrington, and the two other adults in the program have flourished under the direction of an instructor who has experience working with autistic children and a background in organizational communication.

"I see him becoming more independent, reaching out and doing things on his own," said Sharon Rosenbloom, Joey's mother.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects about 1 in 150 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms vary but can include a lack of speech, repetitive use of words or mannerisms, and little or no eye contact. People with autism are often concrete thinkers and visually oriented.

The adult program meets weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in a classroom with bright wall schedules that outline activities with pictures and objects. The students gather around several large tables to talk and complete assignments.

On a typical recent morning, Mark Boys, the teacher, instructed each student on saying good morning through pictures and patient coaxing. The students then gathered around tables to stock bags with school supplies for underprivileged students in Chicago.

The students already were looking forward to their afternoon trip to Starbucks, with Boys coaching them on how to order drinks. On other afternoons, the class goes to a grocery store or a recreation center, or spends time emptying trash, cleaning a car or stocking vending machines.

"The hope is really to create independence with this type of work," said Boys, who added that the goal is for them to "reach their God-given potential."

Such programs are scarce in Illinois, though the state has a number of day programs for adults with developmental disabilities that include adults with autism. Easter Seals in Chicago has a program for adults with autism, as does Little Friends Inc. of Naperville.

Though Elim wants to expand the program, funding has proved a challenge. The state Division of Developmental Disabilities allots roughly $11,500 per year for such programs, according to Bob Marsh, Elim's vice president of ministry resources. The school is trying to raise money from grants, individuals and churches.

"Funds for adults with disabilities in Illinois is a systemic issue," said Marsh.


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Autism talk teaches recognition, response


The 10-year-old who has never spoken a word in his life and the 14-year-old girl who spends hours fixating on the wives of King Henry VIII have the same condition.

One is classified as low functioning, the other is considered higher functioning, and they both have parents who have become experts on what has made them this way and what will keep them safe.

The father of the 10-year-old is Lt. Col. Scott Campbell of the U.S. Army, who gave a presentation titled Autism Spectrum Disorders and Safety last Thursday night at the Prince Frederick Volunteer Rescue Squad. His son, Ian, has low functioning autism and Campbell said, "he only communicates through a computer" and knows some sign language.

Deborah Ursiny of Lusby, who introduced Campbell and is president of the Autism-Asperger Association of Calvert County, learned her daughter Jessica was autistic when she was 8 years old.

"That diagnosis takes a long time to digest … you think this is the child who's going to save the world and then you find out that's not going to happen," Ursiny said of Jessica, who is now 14 and clings to obsessions including the love life of the legendary monarch even though, according to her mom, she does not enjoy school.

Jessica's behavior, according to Campbell, is not atypical for her condition, which he described as "a mental delay" that differs from a mental or physiological disorder. Though he also frequently stressed that "each person with autism is unique," he said there are three main aspects of diagnostic criteria.

The criteria include: qualitative impairment in social interaction; qualitative impairment in communication; and restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities.

Campbell, however, stressed that these symptoms are shared by many unaffected individuals; they are only displayed more drastically in people with autism.

"[If you go by that criteria] all of us have some form of autism," said Campbell, who then joked, "except for maybe President Obama. He seems to be in pretty good shape."

Campbell listed some more specific traits possessed by people with autism. One of the most specific behaviors, he said, is engaging in self stimulating behavior or "stims," which might include spinning around, flapping one's arms or being fascinated with twirling various objects such as leaves or flowers.

"If they're stimming, as long as it isn't a danger to them or you or somebody else, let them do it. It's their way of getting situated and relaxing," Campbell said.

People with autism, are not, however, relaxed if they feel their personal space is being invaded, he said.

"Most of these individuals … are in their own little world and they can become very upset if it's interrupted. They really don't care about you," Campbell said, adding that despite this character trait people with autism are very trusting individuals which can make them likely victims of crimes that can be sexual.

He said to prevent this from happening, parents of a child with autism should make sure their community becomes familiar with their child through initiatives like the "get to know Ian" party he and his wife held when they were stationed in Paris.

Campbell also said that as a means of keeping autistic children healthy and calm, parents should also monitor their diet and particularly avoid giving them desserts or products involving a lot of sugar or artificial flavoring.

He did say, however, that French fries and plain potato chips are OK, and the former of the two is a particular favorite of his son.

"If you're holding a French fry, it is not your French fry; it belongs to him," said Campbell, who cited an experience in which his son ran after a fry-holding stranger at a McDonald's.

He said that instances like this one make it difficult for his family to spend time in social circles of people not used to his son's condition.

"We don't hang out with any other families except for those with autism [in their family] … Ian's behavior is normal to them," Campbell said.

Another difficulty for families with autistic children is financing the disorder, which Campbell said costs an estimated $3.2 million per person for costs including "housing, education, healthcare and lost productivity in parents."

Though it is usually the parents caring for the autistic child, Ursiny, who has Type 1 Diabetes, cited an incident in which her daughter found her unconscious but still was mostly concerned with getting to school on time.

"They cling to routine more in crises than they do out of one," Ursiny said, adding that she thinks there should be some way for 911 operators to know which households have autistic occupants should one ever have to call to report an emergency.

Despite her daughter's inclination to adhere to her schedule, Ursiny said she has no doubt as to where Jessica's heart is.

"I know she loves me," Ursiny said.

Other symptoms of autism Campell cited include delayed speech; appearing insensitive to physical pain; anxious or nervous behavior; acting upset or laughing for no apparent reason; having tantrums or running away unexpectedly; unusual reactions to a sensory environment; contorted posture; covering ears; looking away or being unable to maintain eye contact; difficulty judging personal space; self injurious behavior; no real fear of dangers; attachment to things that are not age appropriate; and being drawn to the water.


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Legislature Proposes Autism Registry


Studies show Autism affects millions of families across the country. New Mexico lawmakers are taking steps to try and determine just how widespread the disorder is.Tuesday, a Senate committee unanimously approved legislation that would create a statewide voluntary autism registry. Another bill in the works would mandate insurance coverage for autistic children through high school. "We're way behind the curve and families are struggling mightily so something needs to get done no matter what is happening budget wise," said Liz Thompson, a mother of an autistic child. Supporters feel it would save the state money in special education and corrections cost.


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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A special house, a special solution for autistic adult son

By William Hageman

From the curb, the small bungalow is just another home on a quiet Skokie street.

But look closer—and walk through it—and the specialness of the house is more apparent. And the story behind the home makes it even more special.

Larry and Beth Markin have a 22-year-old son, Eric, who is autistic. Two years ago, because of his aggressive behavior and the problems involved in caring for him, Eric was declared a crisis case by the state. The Markins knew he could no longer live with them in their Buffalo Grove home. But neither of their options was acceptable in their eyes.

"One was to drop him off at an institution," says Larry, who points out that that would have meant signing away his parental rights. "The state would take him and they'd spend $150,000 or $160,000 [a year] to manage him in a state institution. My other choice ... was to take whatever money [government programs] would give me, about $55,000, and I'd have to house him with six other people" in a group home. Neither setting would be conducive to Eric's well-being. So the Markins took a bold leap, one that could serve as a model for aging parents having to care for their adult special-needs children.

Larry purchased his in-laws' 50-year-old home—the house where Beth grew up and a place that Eric had visited and played in all his life. Then he poured a considerable amount of money into it, converting it to a state-of-the-art home for his autistic son, a personalized residence that takes into account his son's behavior and needs. The house has been remodeled to accommodate a still-undetermined second special-needs person, as well as a caretaker provided by an agency.

Eric's new home was designed by George Braddock, a specialized-housing consultant based in Eugene, Ore. Over the last 24 years, he has done about 600 homes and 1,500 projects for people with disabilities.

"We go back and maintain [finished projects]," Braddock explains, "so we see what works and we can identify various methods, materials and products. So what we do is have a lot of experience in what worked and what didn't work."

After being brought in by Markin, Braddock, who owns Creative Housing Solutions LLC (, made a half-dozen visits to Chicago, getting to know Eric and his needs, drawing up plans, making adjustments, checking on progress.

He also worked closely with contractor Scott Salzman of Scott Construction Co., a Deerfield general contractor, who needed to understand why things were being done a certain way.

"From a contractor's point of view, the problem was getting used to it," Salzman says.

"Everything is done for a reason, and in construction, we might not understand. At a certain point there were many, many calls to Oregon. 'Why are you doing this?' "

An example: The sliding pocket doors have runners on the top and on the bottom, instead of just the top, to prevent a person from kicking the doors off the tracks.

"There were a lot of things. There's a learning curve. But now we understand it. There's a reason for everything."

The result is a home with all the features Eric needs to live a happy and safe life.

And one, Braddock explains, that "still remains within the vocabulary of the neighborhood."

The Markins found Braddock through Allan Bergman, president and CEO of Anixter Center, a Chicago-area organization that advocates for the rights of the disabled. He was familiar with Braddock's work.

"Many people pay somebody called an interior decorator to figure out what goes into their house to make it their home," Bergman explains.

"I think a lot of what George does is specialty interior decorating with some construction pieces tied on to make this comfortable and work for Eric, or whomever he's working for."

The project was not cheap.

"These are $350,000 houses," Markin says of the homes in the neighborhood. "Cabling, computers, construction, everything ... it doubles that amount. More than doubles it.

"I'm not Rockefeller. This left a mark. But I was desperate. This money could have gone into our retirement. Bottom line, I didn't have to do this."

But now that he has, not only Eric may benefit.

"Larry was willing to put the necessary capital resources on the table to make this a model, realizing not everyone could be able to afford this," Bergman says. "The state isn't going to buy houses like this. ... But we can take pieces [of what has been done and adapt it for others]."

"No one who has a special-needs adult can't come through that door and not take something away from this," Markin says. "This is a model for what can be done."

He also pointed out that although the house was designed and built around Eric's needs, it could also be used for others—thus becoming an asset to the community—after Eric is gone.

The real bottom line, though, is how the house has been working for Eric. He moved in in early September. The first couple of weeks were difficult. Then things slowly began turning around.

"At first, he automatically migrated to the basement when he got upset," Larry explains. "He did that probably the first two months."

Eric banged his head on and kicked the walls, but the hard wall construction stopped him from making a habit of such behavior.

The projector in the basement and the fish tank between his room and the living room helped calm him. After a couple of months of retreating to the basement, Eric now tends to hang out upstairs. And, his father reports, there have been no aggressive episodes for a few weeks.

"He seems to be enjoying himself," Larry says. "My wife goes over regularly, I go over there regularly. Eric goes to a day program. It's working."


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Occupational therapy, autism and tactics of self-regulation

by Brian Field

Occupational Therapy, or “OT,” is frequently incorporated into autism therapy regimens to help, among other things, stimulate a balance between the body and mind that can help focus the child. For example, a child may be easily distracted while sitting in a regular classroom chair. When the chair is replaced by a large exercise ball and the child now needs to maintain his balance while sitting, the child’s mind becomes more attuned – focused in part on balancing, more aware of the environment around him, and able to concentrate and focus on other learning.
Exposure to OT and developing awareness to self-regulate one’s body and the body-mind connection can help children – and adults – focus when distracted, and energize oneself when feeling depleted. For younger children, talking about one’s body as an “engine” that’s performing slowly, or “hot/too much energy” is a good visual to use. The following are some OT tactics that can help get your child (or you) out of a “hot zone” and into a calmer physical-mental state.

“On high” at home: too much energy and running all over the house? Some ways to ground yourself are animal walking, learning a few simple yoga postures to do, stopping and taking a few deep breaths.

“On high” while at school: Animal walking around the class, or jumping up and striking yoga poses would obviously be disruptive to the other students. What can be done here are things like giving the child a small “squishy toy” also called a “fidget toy” that allows the child to manually compress/squeeze an object. Having a textured cushion is also another common tactic, and teaching the student to slowly raise and lower his body from the sides of the chair is yet another mechanism of resistance exercise that can help settle the mind. Outside, the child can swing or with a therapist engage in “heavy lifting” exercises or resistance exercises such as pushing a heavy ball or other similar object.

When your “engine” is at low energy: Chewing on crunchy snacks help stimulate the oral-motor connection and can help reinvigorate the child (try healthier fare such as carrot sticks or pretzels). Jumping in place on a mini-trampoline also works wonders and helps the joint compression so too does taking a walk.

As adults we too can benefit from these kinds of tactics to help bolster our concentration and help us at work. The key here is developing (and teaching) self-regulation so that when we feel over-excited or in a low-energy lull, we have a set of physical tactics we can use to perk up mentally and focus.


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Autism service dog becomes local family's new best friend

By Paul Swiech

Matthew Lindsey, 4, no longer has 25 meltdowns a day. He may have two a week. Matthew, who has autism, is speaking in complete sentences. It’s harder for him to wander from home, but when he does, he’s found quickly.

His sister, Lauren, 8, who also has autism, was scared to go outside a year ago. Now she wants to be out, has friends for the first time, and walks to school with an older friend.

The big difference, according to the Lindsey family, is Brock, the autism service dog that the Lindseys got a year ago.

“He’s just a miracle in dog form, I guess,” said Hannah, 12, an older sister who does not have autism.

“It’s so much easier,” said mother Sharon Lindsey. “We’re like a normal family. We don’t have to stay inside hibernating.”

A dog helping to control autism symptoms may appear far-fetched. Then again, dogs help some sight-impaired people to get around in public.

Brock is a service dog trained through 4 Paws For Ability, a Xenia, Ohio-based organization that places trained service dogs with people with autism and some other disabilities.

When the family is walking in public — such as during recent shopping at Wal-Mart Supercenter on West Market Street in Bloomington — Matthew is tethered (harnessed) to Brock by using a vest attached to a short leash while Lauren holds Brock’s other leash. That makes it difficult for either child to run off and get into a potentially dangerous situation.

With a dog along, people who normally may shy away from two children with autism walk up and start conversation.

When Matthew unlocks the door and wanders out of the Lindsey family’s Normal home, Brock is able to follow Matthew’s scent and find the boy.

Sometimes, when either child is screaming and getting upset, Brock performs behavior disruption by nuzzling them and getting them to settle down.

“That usually calms them down pretty quickly,” Hannah said.

“The big thing,” Sharon said, “is he’s their best friend.”

Lauren hugged Brock.

“I love him so much. Sometimes, we play ball or go for a walk. He helped me to go into stores and restaurants,” Lauren said, listing restaurants and supermarkets in Bloomington-Normal where the Lindseys have taken Brock. Trained service dogs are allowed in any publicly accessible building under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is awesome compared to the way things were,” Sharon said.

Family history

Sharon is a full-time mother who separated from her now-ex-husband in May 2007. Hannah is a sixth-grader at Kingsley Junior High School. Lauren is a third-grader at Oakdale Elementary School and Matthew is in the early childhood education program at Colene Hoose Elementary School.

Three years ago, Lauren was diagnosed with higher-functioning autism. A year earlier, she was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder; profound attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; speech apraxia, meaning that her brain doesn’t communicate effectively with her mouth; motor apraxia, meaning that her brain doesn’t communicate effectively with the rest of her body; and sensory integration disorder, meaning that everyday noises are amplified to the point that she can’t deal with them.

She took speech, occupational and physical therapy through Easter Seals; had a resource teacher who helped her at school; saw a psychiatrist; and took medicine to help control her impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Matthew already was in developmental, occupational, speech and feeding therapy and in a play group at Easter Seals when he was diagnosed more than two years ago with moderate autism, sensory integration disorder and speech apraxia.

Matthew repeats things he hears without always understanding what they mean. He has trouble communicating, and when he gets frustrated, sometimes he may scream and take it out on himself by biting, scratching or pulling his hair. He also wanders to calm himself and has no fear of the street, the stove and strangers.

“He loves everyone but he’s also in his own little world,” his mother said.

Sharon heard about 4 Paws for Ability in 2006, researched the organization and decided that a service dog could help Lauren and Matthew. She applied, got a prescription from the children’s pediatrician, underwent a background check and submitted a family video.

She sent letters to area service organizations, church groups and businesses and raised $12,000 — including $3,000 from Bridgestone-Firestone and its workers — to cover Brock’s training.

For two weeks in late 2007, Sharon, Lauren, Matthew and their grandmother were in Xenia, Ohio, to be trained on how to treat and use Brock. In December 2007, they brought Brock home.

About six times in the past year, Matthew has gotten out of the house and Brock has found him. For example, about two weeks ago, when Hannah and Lauren already had left for school and Sharon was taking a quick shower, Matthew decided it was time for him to go to school. He unlocked the front door and left the house.

When Sharon got out of the bathroom and couldn’t find Matthew, she put a tracking collar on Brock, said “Matthew’s gone, find him,” took hold of his leash and both of them took off, with Brock following Matthew’s scent. They found Matthew about two blocks away. He thought he was walking to school but he was going in the wrong direction.

When shopping, Matthew wears a vest with a leash that is tethered to Brock and Lauren holds Brock’s other leash to discourage either child from running off. Before Brock, both children had run off when they got scared in stores. Now they walk with Brock and the rest of the family.

“It’s God’s gift to be able to know your children are with you,” Sharon said. “Before, I would be in Wal-Mart for two hours, trying to hold onto them, and I would just be grabbing things off the shelves. Now, I can shop and look and compare prices. Everyone is calm and I can get done in an hour.”

Store employees and managers have stopped and questioned Sharon but they understand when she explains that Brock is a certified service dog and she shows them Brock’s service dog tag.

“I get a lot of questions from other customers: ‘What does the dog do? Where did you get him? Can I pet him?’ Most people are curious. A few older people have walked the other way but I’ve gotten few negative reactions.”

On Independence Day, the family — with Brock — was able to watch the fireworks at Miller Park for the first time.

“It was amazing,” Sharon said. “You’re like a normal family.”

Asked how she keeps going, even with a service dog, Sharon said, “My kids are my life. How could you not keep going for your kids? I take each day individually.”


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Monday, January 26, 2009

Study adds to evidence of vaccine safety


A new study from Italy adds to a mountain of evidence that a mercury-based preservative once used in many vaccines doesn't hurt children, offering more reassurance to parents.

In the early 1990s, thousands of healthy Italian babies in a study of whooping cough vaccines got two different amounts of the preservative thimerosal (pronounced thih-MEHR'-uh-sawl) from all their routine shots.

Ten years later, 1,403 of those children took a battery of brain function tests. Researchers found small differences in only two of 24 measurements and those "might be attributable to chance," they wrote in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, which was released Monday.

Only one case of autism was found, and that was in the group that got the lower level of thimerosal.

Autism is a complex disorder featuring repetitive behaviors and poor social interaction and communication skills. Scientists generally believe genetics plays a role in causing the disorder; a theory that thimerosal is to blame has been repeatedly discounted in scientific studies.

"Put together with the evidence of all the other studies, this tells us there is no reason to worry about the effect of thimerosal in vaccines," said the new study's lead author, Dr. Alberto Tozzi of Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome.

The debate over thimerosal and autism has been much stronger in the United States than in Italy, Tozzi said. But the researchers recognized a chance to examine the issue by going back to the children who had taken part in the 1990s whooping cough research.

Randomization sets the new study apart. The random assignment of children rules out the chance that factors other than thimerosal, such as education or poverty, caused the results.

Thimerosal, used in some vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus, hasn't been in U.S. childhood vaccines since 2001, except for certain flu shots. Italy and other European nations began removing it in 1999. U.S. health officials recommended the removal of thimerosal as a precaution and to reduce the overall exposure of children to mercury.

Safety regulations still require multi-dose vials of vaccines to contain some type of preservative to prevent the spread of infection from contaminated vials.

The study, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drew praise from outside experts.

"It's yet another well done, peer-reviewed research study that has demonstrated there is no risk of any neurodevelopmental outcomes associated with thimerosal in vaccines," said epidemiologist Jennifer Pinto-Martin of the University of Pennsylvania.

"This becomes the fourth study to look for subtle signs of mercury toxicity and show the answer was 'no,'" said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the author of a book on autism research and the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine.

Tozzi said comparing children with no exposure to thimerosal could have improved the study. "However, if thimerosal were a cause of harm, it is likely that this effect would increase with the administered dose," he said.

The children received either 62.5 micrograms or 137.5 micrograms of ethyl mercury from all their shots during their first year of life. Thimerosal breaks down as ethyl mercury in the body. Before the reduction of thimerosal in the United States, the maximum exposure for infants was 187.5 micrograms of ethyl mercury.

The researchers found the children in both groups scored, on average, in the normal range on 11 tests of memory, attention, motor skills and other brain functions.

Those 11 tests included 24 measured outcomes. Small, but statistical differences were found for only two of those areas, and only for girls. The girls with higher exposure scored worse on a finger-tapping test with their dominant hands, and on a vocabulary test in which they were asked to name common objects.

There was no difference in boys on those outcomes or others. Researchers also found no difference in tic disorders. And the one autism case found in the lower-intake group was likely a chance finding, Tozzi said.


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Gatorade took a series of bold marketing steps to relaunch its brand. While some panned its initial teaser campaign, many parents of children with autism applaud it.

Gatorade has caught a good deal of flack for rebranding itself simply as the letter 'G.' Teaser ads that ran for weeks did not come out and tell the consumer "Gatorade is now 'G.' Go out and buy some right away." Instead the spots showed what the brand stands for via a montage of black-and-white images of 28 legendary athletes.

No image was more powerful to parents of children with autism than that of Jason McElwain. Nestled between the likes of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali was J-Mac.

For those who do not know his story, this is what happened: J-Mac, as his teammates called him, has autism. As a student at Greece Athena High School in upstate Rochester, N.Y., he was welcomed by the basketball squad as a teammate and a friend, although his job was to provide support and help clean up after the game.

As a mostly symbolic gesture, the team's coach told the student body that J-Mac would get into the final game of the season last year, even if only for a few plays. The students, in support of their friend, held up signs bearing his photo.

Well, J-Mac missed his first shot, leaving his coach to wonder how long he should leave him in. After all, he didn't want to make a spectacle of such a well-loved student. And then something amazing happened: J-Mac hit a 3-pointer. The gym erupted.

Then he hit another and another and another. When he was through he set the school record for most 3-pointers ever hit in a game (6) and he scored 20 points in four minutes.

For many folks who watched this on YouTube, it fit in nicely with their perception of the autistic. Namely, many believe each has the skills of a savant.

After all, most people's only point of reference is Rain Man. Their perception is that all people with autism are capable of spectacular things like Dustin Hoffman was in the movie. For a very small minority this is true.

The reality is those who are gifted and fall within the autistic spectrum struggle. As do all of those affected with this neurological disorder that is often characterized by impaired social skills and communication.

But, every parent I have encountered knows his or her child is capable of more. Some parents feel their child can achieve greatness. Even if this greatness is saying the sentence, "I want juice" for the first time—well after their sibling or typical peers did. Writing their name, singing a song like "Wheels on the bus," all are major accomplishments. These are all victories for kids who just aren't playing the same game as everyone else.

That's why J-Mac's accomplishments are so inspirational. We all feel that given the right circumstances, that our children cannot only excel, but they can win. We look at our children's potential and imagine only the best.

The fact that this young man succeeded at a sport like basketball is a perfect metaphor. So many parents see that their kids can hit the shot. It just doesn't happen consistently. Then all of a sudden it does and their child turns a corner.

I'm not sure that people who do not have challenged family members or friends in their lives will ever truly understand what it is like, but I applaud Gatorade and TBWA\Chiat\ Day in Los Angeles for exposing them to

J-Mac. Perhaps they will ask the question, "Who is that?" And go on to learn his story.

Even if his face didn't register with them, it did with the parents of autistic children and adults. This is a passionate and ever-growing group of people who take notice and share information about science, schools and, yes, brands. The latest statistics have 1-in-150 children as being classified as being on the spectrum. Others will argue the number is much higher. Either way, this is an engaged and informed consumer base.

The sheer fact that such a major brand would include J-Mac in its montage of top athletes did not go unnoticed. It is a testament to someone on their brand team who truly understands. "We included J-Mac because of his remarkable sports moment," said Pete Brace, a Gatorade rep. "He is someone who clearly represents the heart, hustle and soul of an athlete."

His inclusion is an inspiration for the many people who are dealing with autism every day.

We know given the right chance, through time, effort and love, our kids can achieve many things people told us they would never be able to do.

Whether it is a 20-point scoring explosion, using a skill acquired after hours of therapy like cutting a piece of paper, or attending their first day of class in a mainstream setting with their typical peers—there is so much progress to be made.

That's why J-Mac is a winner for sticking with basketball and excelling at it. And so is G for embracing him and in turn, the many, many people affected by autism.


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Movie gives parents of children with autism a break

By Lacey Nix

Movies are a lot of fun for most people, but for parents of children with autism, they can be a nightmare. Children with the disorder are often sensitive to light and sound, and sitting still for 1-1/2 to 2 hours is nearly impossible. That’s why on Saturday night a group of children with autism and their parents gathered to enjoy a movie and dinner. Kim Disney said she would not take her 8-year-old son Caleb to a movie. Because of his autism it is hard for him to sit still, the sounds can be too much for him, and he likes to run around. An event like autism movie night gives Caleb a chance to be himself, without putting any stress on his parents. Disney said, “Autism is so different it’s hard a lot of times for people to understand why our kids act the way they do. When we are with each other we understand each other, there is no apologizing and explaining and we have that acceptance.” Disney is the President of the Morgan County Autism Foundation, who hosted the event. The foundation consists of 11 members who are trying to raise money for autism awareness in Morgan County. They hope to have more movie nights in the future. Vice-President Angela Long thinks the movie nights are great, especially because it gives parents a chance to connect with other parents going through the same thing. She said, “It gets the kids out around other kids and it gets parents out where we can be around other parents who are dealing with the same situations we are. It gives the kids an opportunity to have fun and run around without anyone being offended.” The children watched the movie, “Horton Hears A Who,” they ate pizza and snacks, and were able to play the Nintendo Wii if interested. Although they had a nice turn out, Kim Disney hopes that next time it will be even bigger. Her goal is to provide nights where kids can be themselves, parents can get the support they need, and they can all help raise awareness about autism.


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Inside the mind of an autistic genius

by Ann Treneman

Daniel Tammet likes to call himself a high-functioning autistic savant. That means his brain is capable of learning a foreign language in a week and memorising vast chains of numbers perfectly.

I would be lying if I said that I didn't expect Daniel Tammet to be at least a little odd. He has Asperger's, a form of autism, and is a savant with a talent for languages and numbers. This is a man who taught himself Icelandic in a week and once recited the first 22,514 digits of pi - from memory. For those of us who knew pi was infinite but never really got beyond 3.14, it all seems, well, almost alien. He hates that idea. Daniel thinks savants get a bad press and it is true that the only really famous savant is Raymond Babbitt, the hopeless but engaging genius of the film Rain Man. Daniel has been called the British Rain Man but bridles at the comparison. As he has said, he has a partner, a job, friends. “How could I be considered a Rain Man?”

Daniel is 29 (a prime number and therefore, for him, good) and, the moment we meet, I can see he is no Rain Man. He may have grown up in the East End, one of nine children, lonely and odd. But, over the years, he has taught himself, with amazing pertinacity, to behave “normally” and now, I have to say, he's almost cracked it. “Savants have been seen as something supernatural or alien,” he says, almost as we shake hands (a learnt behaviour for him). “We have been marginalised and mysticised. But people like myself are very much human.”

He gives a little smile and, for someone like him (Aspergerians often do not show emotion), this is the equivalent of a church peal. His voice, as light as his handshake, seems continental or, I note, a bit Eurotrash. He doesn't blink an eye (he is looking straight at me, another learnt behaviour). How did that happen to an East Ender? Well, he says, he now lives in Avignon, where the French also think his accent has a continental twang.

Why Avignon? “I fell in love,” he says. He met his partner Jerome while promoting his bestselling autobiography Born on a Blue Day a few years ago. Before its publication Daniel lived a quiet life, a rigid existence aimed at calming his many anxieties. “I was very happy but it was a small happiness,” he says. With Jerome, though, his life has changed. His new book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is, as its subtitle says, a tour of the horizons of the human mind. It is about liberating our brains and he agrees that this also reflects his new life.

I ask first about numbers, which, for many people, including me, make them feel stupid, not free. Daniel imbues all numbers with meaning and he loves primes. “But all numbers are beautiful,” he says. “All have a kind of beauty.”

Well, I say, what about 338. That is the address of his publisher, where we are meeting. That's not prime.
“It's not. It's twice 13 squared.”

Is it? My brain races and comes up with...nothing.
“You can really only understand numbers in the context of other numbers. Numbers belong to clusters of meaning. What I do with numbers, when I am visualising them, allows me to put them into a context. People do the same with language. This is one of the similarities between how savants and non-savants work.”

Hmm, I say, thinking, I have no idea what you are talking about.

“For me 338 is only understandable when in terms of 13. You take 13, which is prime, and you multiply it by itself, which is a square, and that makes 169 and when you double it you get 338. I knew that immediately. I am able to visualise these associations: 13 would be a wavy number, 169 would be like a waterfall. Take that waviness and multiplying it into a waterfall; double a number would be to curl it around in my mind so 338 is like a waterfall that curls and loops in your mind.”
Well, I say, trying to imagine a curly looping waterfall, can we all learn to do this? He nods. He says that nonsavants do the same with language. When we hear the word “giraffe”, we immediately link it with words like neck, tall, animal. “It's exactly the same with me with 338. The only difference, then, really is that you are able to visualise words but not numbers and I am able to do both.”

I like the “only” in that sentence but, still, it is fascinating. But then that's Daniel. He is slight, soft spoken, unemotional. If I were to visualise him it would be as a piece of tin glinting in the sunlight: his ideas are sharp but you can almost see his brain bending at times. But then, he's had to be flexible. Otherwise he'd be living in his own world, not ours.
Daniel Tammet was born on January 31, 1979. He knows it's a Wednesday because he sees it as blue and all Wednesdays are. He calls his childhood “difficult”, a major understatement. As an infant he cried incessantly, as a young child he hardly spoke. At 4 he had an epileptic fit. He was the first of nine children. One of Daniel's brothers also has Asperger's, a high-functioning type of autism, but is not a savant as well. His father was a factory worker who battled with schizophrenia for much of his adult life.

Asperger's wasn't diagnosed until Daniel was 25 and so, at school, he got by as best he could. His talents for maths and languages did not compensate for his inability to socialise. His world was complex, bedevilled by small things: even brushing his teeth was problematical as he couldn't bear the scratchy noise and could only do so in short bursts and with parental help.

Plus he was gay. He says that from the age of 11, he knew he was attracted more to boys than girls but, perilously shy, he did not act on it. His first real relationship did not occur until after he'd left school and spent a year teaching English in Lithuania. He met Neil, his first love, on the internet.

Since adolescence, Daniel had set his mind to be normal. This was a leap of faith and, for him, acutely uncomfortable. It helped to have a large family but, at school, he also watched children in the playground “like David Attenborough, trying to look at a world that I didn't belong in yet”. It is this that sets him apart. There are about 50 other savants like him in the world, but Daniel, rarely, can tell us about it. This is what he started to do. He did a documentary. He met scientists. He did his pi feat (it only took a few weeks, he visualises such incredible number chains as landscapes). Famously, he learnt Icelandic in a week (he knows 12 languages and speaks English, French, German, Icelandic and Esperanto fluently). So how did he do it? “I immersed myself. I was given a tutor. I had lots of books. I wouldn't recommend it for most people. It was for a documentary.”

I make a small joke about Iceland's current predicament. He looks at me blankly. Humour is not natural Aspergian territory. Nor is embarrassment. At one point, when he tells me how pleased he is that a book reviewer has said he writes like Hemingway, I say that most people would be too embarrassed to say that. “I don't have any embarrassment. This is a trait, perhaps, of Asperger's.”

There is a quantum leap between the Daniel of his autobiography, published in 2006, and this book of ideas and insights. Then Daniel had been living in a Kent cul-de-sac, his life quiet and ordered. He ate exactly 45g of porridge every morning (weighed on an electronic scale) and counted the number of items of clothing he wore. When stressed, he closed his eyes and began to count (multiplying by two was especially calming). At the end of the first book, he writes about how much he enjoys cutting recipes in half.

“That feels a bit like a past life,” he says. And it is. He looks back on the pi feat as part of a “performing seal” phase. His life is much less prescribed, his coping skills improved (but, again, he has worked at it). He forces himself to endure being uncomfortable: even his interview with me would have been difficult. He gives falling in love with Jerome, a photographer he met in Paris on a publicity shoot, the credit. Buoyed by the response to his autobiography, he has embraced writing. It's an intellectually questing life, beyond recipes.

Our conversation keeps coming back to numbers. He says that maths is taught badly, rigidly. We are obsessed with achieving the “right” answer. We should estimate more, trust our instincts. Apparently we are born with an instinct for counting. If you tell pre-school children that John has 15 sweets and is given 17 more and that Susan has 51 sweets, three out of four will give the right answer when asked who has the most. Daniel believes his abilities are an outgrowth of such natural instincts.

As Daniel talks about numbers, they emerge like Mr Men characters: 4 (his favourite number) is shy like him as a child; 6 is cold and small. This process of giving numbers personalities is similar to the revolutionary teaching methods of Stella Baruk who, in France, is known as the “maths fairy”. It sounds more fun than all those sums.

Daniel insists that we all start with “great minds”. But does he really think so? Aren't some people just thick? “I totally disagree. I think everyone has amazing abilities. It is just a case of context. If you think about gossip. If you think about recognising faces. People on the autistic spectrum find that very difficult. We have been led down the wrong path that the mind is more and more like a computer. But it is completely opposite. Savants, rather than exemplifying the computer likeness of the mind, do the opposite. I love numbers. I love language. I dance with numbers rather than crunch them. Similarly with language. When I think of language I think of beautiful architectures of meaning. A computer can't do that.”
He is restless and ambitious. He likes the idea of turning 30. “Twenty-nine is prime. Thirty-one is prime. I like being between primes.” He is writing a book on faith (he is a Christian) and then he wants to write a novel. He knows that he is gifted but that is not enough: it is his desire to be ranked among the great minds. “But that's for me to demonstrate. I've made a good start but I'm very young and I've got many things to do.”

He stops, his eyes fixed on me. “I know that people can take the wrong impression. I don't mean to say how amazing I am but I've always been stung by the idea that I am a performing seal and I'm only interesting in terms of my ability to learn things quickly. I think people underestimate savants, but they underestimate themselves as well. If I can do amazing things, it's because I'm human. It's because, as Shakespeare said, we're all the stuff of dreams.”


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Sunday, January 25, 2009

A boy with autism and his dog find a world in common

By Amy Wilson

It's early July, and Michael wants nothing to do with the dog. The feeling, if you can judge a new puppy's intent, is not mutual.

Michael is a 5-year-old child, diagnosed within the wide autism syndrome label, who doesn't want to be touched, much less touch the animal in front of him.

Mercury is a 10-week-old black Labrador who wants nothing more than to be touched and played with.

If the goal is to make Mercury responsive to Michael's needs, you first have to get them to acknowledge each other.

And make no mistake, that's the goal. Because if therapists and dog trainers can figure out a way to get Mercury to sense what Michael is doing or about to do, and then disrupt it or comfort him through it, there is fresh reason to think autistic children can be armed with a new and highly effective — did we mention wet-nosed? — weapon against a world that doesn't understand them.
But there is a problem here. Autistic children want little or no eye contact with others. Dogs crave it. Autistic children are often non-responsive to verbal cues and praise. Dogs wait for the former and live for the latter. How to get them to speak each other's language is the issue.

The breakthrough that is to come in the months ahead for Michael and Mercury will not be a miracle. It will take weeks of coaxing and more than a little invention. But it will come, when someone gets the bright idea to open a can of shaving cream.
The idea of using animals to help human beings is not new. The idea of using horses to help autistic children with movement and stimulation issues has been around for a while.

But to use dogs as assistance animals for children with autism is so complicated that what is happening with Michael and Mercury is, though with some precedent, sort of being made up as it goes along.

This is how it works: Two willing and eager parents, Chris and Kim Farthing, explain Michael's behavior and their needs regarding that behavior to experienced dog trainer Jo Brosius. Brosius, in turn, explains what she can do with Mercury to Jaci Durham and Peggy Wittman, an occupational therapy master's candidate and her academic adviser, who then discuss what Michael might accept — be it closeness, distraction, companionship — from the dog.

It's a constant communication between each team member about what is working and what isn't. It's invention at every level, sometimes with as simple a goal as to get Michael to let Mercury sit next to him without incident.

"A lot of people think I'm stretching for a miracle, like I'm trying to make him normal," Kim Farthing says.

She shakes her head no.

Michael, like many children with autism, tends to wander away from home and familiar boundaries. If Mercury can stop that, if he can even just go with Michael when he goes, that will be enough.
"I just want Michael safe."

A good friend had seen a story about autism assistance dogs on a network magazine show in early 2008.

The Farthings had a lot to think about when inviting a new permanent "family member" into their home. They have two other children — Creed, Michael's twin brother, and Jordan, his 8-year-old sister.
Kim had to check with Boyle County School District officials to be certain that if the dog was trained and then "service-certified," he would be allowed in Michael's classroom. They agreed the dog would be welcome.

Kim did some further research and, with more than a few fits and starts and the abundant blessing of generous friends who helped pay numerous expenses, they found what they were looking for.
Sooner than expected, in mid-summer, a shiny black Labrador, named after the first planet from the sun, arrived in Kentucky.

Michael had been diagnosed with autism just after he and Creed, who is a typical child, turned 2. Michael read at 4, can speak but doesn't much like to, does not respond when being urgently searched for, gets fixated on shapes and numbers and lights, tends to negotiate for what he wants and needs, is in a constant state of distraction, and loves video games and, oh yeah, the solar system.

He tends to "melt down" when overstimulated, flaying his arms defensively or biting his hand in a gesture of abject retreat. His immune system, like that of many children with autism, is shot. He tends to wander away. He has no awareness of social norms or cues. However, he attends Perryville Elementary School, where he has been placed in a typical classroom, has a full-time aide and a few hours of special education training.

Mercury is a puppy, chosen by breed and disposition to be intensely loyal, non-aggressive and easily trained. He is a treat hound, willing to do anything for a puppy cookie and/or a tummy rub. He's a fast learner who likes playing in water.
When introduced to each other for the first time in July, Michael bit his own hand repeatedly and retreated to the hands of his mother. Mercury paid attention to anyone who paid attention to him.
Trainer Brosius watched all this carefully. She had worked with disabled children with a good deal of success before, but this was something new. What, she wondered, would interest Michael enough to make him work? What would get his attention?
"I could make the dog do anything. I was sure of that. But Michael? That was another story."

The duo spent session after session in each other's company without Michael acknowledging the dog's presence. He could not bear the feel of the dog's fur on his skin.

Brosius worried that the puzzle that was Michael wasn't going to give up its secrets.
"I just had to step into Michael's world and draw him back into mine."

In early fall, Brosius had a million ideas. Some worked. Michael likes bubbles, so they had the dog and the boy chase bubbles together. Michael likes things that blink and spin, so they put LED lights on Mercury's collar.

When they did, Michael touched the dog's leash.
On that day, his father threw him high in the air to show his son how happy everyone was with Michael's simple concession. As he did, Michael kept repeating over and over to his father, "Touch clouds. Touch clouds. Touch clouds."

Jaci Durham was brought in because, quite frankly, it was October and Michael still wasn't touching the dog, and Brosius needed help.

A graduate student in occupational therapy at Eastern Kentucky University, Durham is the daughter of dog breeders. This was something she knew she was born to do.

On her first day with the crew at Brosius' home in Berea, the novice occupational therapist brought a piece of silk to lay over Mercury, to be, as she told Michael, his "Superdog" cape. She wanted to somehow entice Michael to touch first the silk, then to remove the silk and see if he'd touch the dog.
Michael was not buying it.

She had another thought. She got out a can of Barbasol shaving foam and slathered a flat tray with the creamy concoction. Together, she and Michael drew shapes of the planets and numbers in the foam. They put their handprints in the foam.

Brosius got Mercury to put his paw in the tray and leave his print. Then, ever so slyly, Durham foamed up the black dog and asked Michael to draw the planets on the docile dog.

To everyone's astonishment, his finger reached out and made the shape, touching the dog without resistance.

"My God," thought a shocked Durham, "this stuff they've been teaching me actually works."

The next time they were together, Durham asked Michael to draw Jupiter on the dog. This time she had no foam to fool him with.

Michael never balked. There, on the black dog's perfectly shiny fur, a faint shape of a planet.
Durham found ways to motivate Michael. Her greatest bargaining tool: "Hippie shakes," whereby they both sit on the floor and Durham grabs his outstretched legs and shakes them wildly. It rewards him, focuses him, even sort of helps to organize his thoughts, says Durham. Most of all, it's leverage. Michael is a negotiator; he will do most anything for "hippie shakes."

A session with Durham and Brosius can last 90 minutes or 15, and it's only twice a week. The training time can be severely limited by Michael's ability to tolerate sensory input. And problems — puzzles really — can come at every turn.

They discovered that Mercury responded a lot better when spoken to in "an authoritative voice." What the heck is authoritative to a 5-year-old autistic kid?

The crew put their heads together. Simple. Kim told Brosius that Michael watched SpongeBob SquarePants and that he could imitate the villain's voice pretty well. So they told Michael to do "Plankton voice" when commanding Mercury.
Worked like a charm.

The evidence is pretty strong, says Wittman, that kids with disabilities are discriminated against.
"Dogs," she says, "create commonality. Other kids are likely to come up to a kid in a wheelchair if there's a dog attached. They bridge a gap of differentness."

But autistic children are not like other children with physical disabilities. The social gap cannot be bridged by a dog. The dog is there to, perhaps, make the child seem less frightening to other children, but he is not a panacea for the child's social differentness.

"It's hard for us to define 'relationships' for these kids," Wittman says. "Maybe it's why an animal works for them. We define relationships as some kind of reciprocity. Animals might not come with those expectations."

Do the Farthings want Mercury to be Michael's friend?

"I'm not sure he would entirely understand that," says Kim. "I want Mercury to be his guardian."
"I think dogs are unconditionally loving and receptive in a way that humans aren't," says Durham. "My parents bought my dog, Sugar, when I was going through my divorce and I was two hours away from anyone who loved me. Dogs have a keen intuition about our emotions. They're a buffer. Mercury can be Michael's buffer."

November 8 is the first night that Mercury sleeps over at the Farthings'.

Everyone is treating it like a normal Sunday afternoon session, only Mercury just won't be going home when Durham and stand-in trainer Amy Hughes do.

Kaywood, the 7-year-old basset hound alpha dog of the house, is wondering what is up. Mercury, at 5 months old, moves at the speed of light, sniffing every baseboard, every table leg, everything. He's called upstairs for therapy.

Michael, not surprisingly, is overwhelmed and he retreats, as is his custom, into his rather large closet, which soon enough contains all of his nine inflatable planets, a pile of his favorite books, a four-foot-long fish pillow, Durham, Hughes and Mercury.

"Get off me," Michael says to Mercury.
Hughes feeds Mercury treats to keep him lying down.

"Can you read Mercury a book?" Durham asks Michael.


"He likes to learn," says Hughes.

"Hippie shake?" asks Michael.

"You have to do your work before we do hippie shake," says Durham.

He begins reading Blue Hat, Green Hat.

"Michael, let me tell you a secret. Mercury gets cold easily. Can you move closer to him?"


The promise of three hippie shakes for Michael and the delivery of five treats to Mercury get the two of them to agree to be in the closet together, touching, while Michael reads.

The negotiation has taken more time than the reading. The dog has paid attention to Hughes, mostly, as she is the one handing out treats. Still, Michael has not once objected to Mercury being in the closet with him. He has moved easily into Mercury's space and only reacted when Mercury has moved, unexpectedly, into his.

Still, no dogs were asked to leave the closet. No therapists either.

When Mercury stays behind to spend his first night in Michael's room, Michael is oblivious to the change in routine. Same could be said for the dog.

The first morning Mercury wakes up at the Farthings, Michael is taught how to feed him. This is absolutely crucial. The dog must know whom he depends upon for food.

Michael is 6 now. He needs reminding, but he is capable.

Kim and Chris Farthing are beginning to think this could work.

By December, the dog has learned the command "circle Michael." It's a command Kim can give to get Mercury to run circles around her wandering child.
Or, a permutation of the command into "circle me" can be a playful directive from Michael.

This piece of progress happened by chance one day in late November when Mercury began to chase his own tail about the same time that Michael began to have a meltdown. The dog's spinning stopped Michael cold. He calmed down to watch the dog, mesmerized.

Kim reported this to Brosius and, with careful redirection of everyone's efforts, Mercury has learned to sense Michael's meltdowns and begins to chase his tail on his own when the child becomes flustered, agitated, uncommunicative and flailing. The tail-chasing ends the meltdown before it starts. Good dog.

Michael still has times when he doesn't want Mercury near him. He still runs away from him. But these days, more often than not, Mercury will follow. Michael will speed up. Mercury will speed up, then they will start flying around the kitchen, Mercury sliding rear-first into the lower cabinets, and everyone is friends again.

Michael and his twin brother sleep in the same double bed with Mercury between them. Since the dog has joined them, Michael gets out of bed much less often to wander the house at night. When Michael and Creed "camp out" in the living room, Michael has even made sure Mercury is invited to the sleepover as well.

Mercury also has been taught by Brosius to play "hide and seek" with Michael, a precursor to teaching him to scent and track should that ever become necessary.

So far, the dog has not failed to find Michael in the bed, under the bed or in the closet.

The Farthings know there is a long way to go. But they know how far they've come.

Brosius, who has not been paid for any of her services save for transportation, has now begun work with four other autistic children and their dogs.

She says she will stay with Michael and Mercury "as long as they need me. It's not done until they say it's done."


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