Autism is really hard. It sucks. But then, as a parent, when your kid gets to a certain age and you add puberty into the mix, you’d better get ready for the ride of your life. You think you know anxiety, but you have no idea. You think you know what a tantrum is, but then the autistic tantrums hit. And because every case of autism and every child is different, it presents itself in different ways.
We had tried a few medications to help our son, but the side effects were getting tricky, so he decided to clean himself out and try something new. As that was ongoing, a miracle happened, and we got a service dog, the kind that is trained since birth to pay attention to the little nuances that plague our son when he is having trouble. The kind that sits or lays down and won’t get up until we tell him to. The kind that can go to the bathroom on command so we can go to public places without worry. The kind that won’t jump or bark unless he’s told to. The kind that can push elevator buttons, turn on lights, and even open handicap doors—a real, honest-to-god service dog named Cohen!
When Cohen came to us, things were particularly rough. I’d stopped blogging or doing much of anything else except focusing on my family and clients—that was my entire focus. We had to get our son’s autism under control, but as we looked into possibly getting a dog, I knew I didn’t want to deal with a puppy when handling my kids was hard enough. If my son happened to have a tantrum, a puppy might not understand what was going on and possibly hurt him, or join along in the freakout my son was having.
Then, my good friend Enna (the brilliant photographer AND chocolate maker) told me about NEADS. They train service dogs for all kind of disabilities, including autism, and the best part is that they’re local. What really clinched it for me was about 3 weeks later when I was watching the Boston Marathon and saw Pat and Jess—whose wedding I had second shot for my friend Allana. I had been heartbroken to hear that they were victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, but there they were on my screen, with Pat running over the finish line and Jess with her NEADS service dog, Rescue. And that was enough for me.
My mom was so wonderful to tell me not to worry about the 10 days I needed to spent in Princeton to do the extensive training to learn the language and commands for our dog. She would come up from Philadelphia to help with our boys, and so with that worry off my list, I filled out the application. A few weeks later, we went through an extensive interview: How big was too big? How much did my son need him on a day to day basis? Did we have a fenced in yard? What does a tantrum look like? Does the dog need to go to sports events? Did we travel? This was just a sample of the questions they asked us.
We were then told that the cost of training a service dog is around $42,000! But they only asked us to raise $8000 to help offset the costs. We didn’t exactly have that kind of money lying around, so NEADS created a fundraising page for us, which allowed all the donations to go directly to our dog. We posted it to Facebook and also sent out a personal email to family and friends, and then we waited.
It was really hard for my husband and I to do this, because it’s a lot to ask. We really needed to swallow our pride for this one. How could we ask friends, family and even complete strangers for this amount of money? But people came out of the woodwork. Our son’s teachers, his counselors from camp, tons of friends and family, my clients, my husband’s co-workers, and even complete strangers donated! And in about two months they helped us raised all the money! We are eternally grateful for the generosity in helping us.
After that, all that was left to do was wait for a match, which we were told could take up to a year. So, we tried to put it out of our minds for a while. But not four days after we had achieved our goal, we got a call from Erin, the head trainer at NEADS, telling us we had a match and asking if we would be available in four weeks for training. If we had said no, we would have been put back on the waiting list, so, of course, we booked a flight for my mom, and said YES!
Four weeks later, I was making the daily hour-long commute back and forth to Princeton for training, and my husband came as often as he could. On Thursday, our son joined us, and we stayed overnight at an amazing guest house with three other families, all of whom also had kids on the spectrum. That Friday, our dog came home with us to join our family.
On Monday, we were able to meet the inmate who trained the dog as part of the Prison Pups program in which minimum and medium security prisoners train service dogs. Believe me when I tell you it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. We met in a room with about 30 men and their dogs as they thanked us for coming to meet them and told us how seriously they took their jobs. My son and another boy walked around the room and asked all kind of questions about their dogs and the program—it was truly a unique experience. Our son had some one on one time with Cohen’s actual trainer, who was so curious about what kind of life we would be providing the dog. He was so kind and really interested in where his dog, the dog he spent almost 18 months with was going.
Finally, we took Cohen home. He is an 18-month-old yellow lab and the best thing to ever happen to our family. I just wanted to share with you some of the pictures I took in training with him and the other families.
Thank you to everyone who donated. The dog is helping. It’s not a cure-all, but it has been a huge help so far. And now—it’s back to work. Stay tuned for more blogs about my wonderful clients soon. If you have any questions about getting a service dog, you can reach out to me, or contact NEADS directly.