Amber, a golden retriever from Westhoughton shows how dogs can help childrem with autism
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 October 2013 | UPDATED: 10:43 11 January 2016
Amber didn’t make it as a guide dog but she has developed a remarkable bond with a little boy with autism. Emily Rothery reports
Seven-year-old Nathan giggles and waves his hands in delight as his dog Amber gently takes treats from him.
Nathan, a happy and affectionate boy, is autistic but it is clear that he shares an unspoken bond with his pet. His mum, Nicola Greenwood, smiles as she watches them. ‘Engaging with Amber takes him out of his own world,’ she said.
‘We really believe that Nathan is considering her needs and that is a major breakthrough. Amber has quickly caught on that if she barks or makes a fuss of him after school then he will run to reward her with treats or toys.’
Nathan also loves to sit and feel Amber’s thick coat beneath his feet. If he wants Amber’s attention he just gives her a friendly tug. Nicola explains: ‘When Nathan was about 12 months we realised that he was starting to withdraw from us. His eye contact and the little speech that he had started to diminish.
‘He stopped responding to his name and became very introverted. It was like watching him slowly disappear, like a light fading into the distance. It was awful and extremely difficult not knowing exactly what was happening.’
At the age of two Nathan was diagnosed as being severely autistic. Nicola and her husband David have worked tirelessly to make life easier for their son and through research and incorporating various programmes into their lives things have slowly improved.
Amber, a golden retriever, joined the family at their home in Westhoughton near Bolton in 2011 after Nicola had attended a workshop held by PAWS, a service that has been set up by Dogs for the Disabled. PAWS offers advice on the suitability of a dog for autistic children and basic training. The Greenwood family were eventually matched with Amber via the Guide Dogs Association where she hadn’t quite made the grade as a guide dog.
‘When Nathan first met Amber he cuddled her straight away but that was short lived so we didn’t force things. Although it seemed that Nathan wasn’t interested in her, we noticed how much calmer he was when she was nearby and that he wasn’t so anxious around strangers. He also started to enjoy going for walks with her and spontaneously laughing as she ran around and barked or splashed in streams.’
Amber, in turn, seems to be attuned to Nathan’s needs. She lends a calming balance to Nathan’s exuberance and quietly tolerates his autistic behaviours which might include running around, making loud noises and repetitive movements.
Amber can be playful too. She greets me like an old friend and it is heart warming to watch her bound out of the door after Nathan and into the garden to play. In summer they happily splash in the pool together and during the winter months Nathan has gradually become keen to play in the snow because Amber enjoys it so much.
‘They are both bouncy but we’re not used to quiet. We describe Nathan as our very own Tigger,’ laughs Nicola.
Recent research has shown that the presence of a well trained dog can have a soothing effect when a child with autism is distressed. Anecdotal evidence shows that some children who refuse to clean their teeth or have nails clipped will do so happily if the family pet has the same treatment alongside.
One young boy was persuaded to put on his school uniform if his dog wore a school tie and walked to school with him. Dogs can also be trained to push a sound button and thus distract the child if heading for an emotional outburst. Amber hasn’t been taught any special tricks but Nicola strongly feels that her presence has prevented Nathan’s recent potential behavioural problems from escalating out of control.
Nicola and David also noticed changes in Nathan when they went on holiday last year: ‘We had taken Amber previously and Nathan was fine but without her he seemed withdrawn and anxious. We certainly won’t be going without her again!’
It seems that the whole family has benefited from having Amber around. ‘We’re definitely fitter now from walking Amber and calmer; probably our blood pressure has dropped too!’ Nicola adds. ‘Our lovely pet is so good natured and dependable. Her relationship with Nathan has been part of the process that has helped us reach our little boy and slowly help him to join our world and become who he is today.’
Paws for thought
PAWS stands for Parents Autism Workshops and Support and it brings together parents of children with autism to share experiences and explore the potential that a pet dog might have within the family.
The special chemistry shown between a child and dog through Dogs for the Disabled’s work providing assistance dogs for families with a child with autism, means that while for some children there will be a clear need for a fully trained assistance dog, a well trained family pet dog can also have a massively beneficial impact. Find out more at paws.dogsforthedisabled.org