"To people who don't understand what it is like to have autism, I would just explain the difficulties children with autism encounter every single day. Sensory overload, anxiety, loneliness, isolation. The fears the parents have for the child's safety and how the dog keeps them safe".
Linda Christianson firmly believes that her son Ben's assistance dog changed all of their lives.
"Ben was very isolated before we received Chester, his anxiety levels would go off the scale if we went any place new or encountered any new situations. If we had to go someplace new or a place we didnt' go very often, Ben would get so stressed he would go into a full meltdown. People can wonder when parents say meltdown are they talking about a temper tantrum but it is really different. The child in the middle of a meltdown is really stressed and frightened, he or she cannot control what is happening to them at the time.
Ben didn't speak to people if they asked him a question when we were out he wouldn't answer. He was never able to say how he was feeling. He was very very lonely.
He was in danger of being knocked down on the streets because he would just run off if he saw something that interested him.
Life for all the family was just as stressful as it was for Ben. We didn't ever go out for enjoyment, we went out if we had to. We always needed two adults there so going out was only an option when both of us were free to go along.
A visit to a shopping center could (and did) often result in Ben wandering off if we took our eyes or hands off him for a minute.
We didnt' go to playgrounds, cinema, or any of the places that families go together.
We lost touch with friends because the couldn't understand how a trip to the playground or beach could be so hard for us that it was easier for us just to say we couldn't make it.
Society is not always supportive of children with autism. But I think it's because they don't understand what autism is or how it impacts on the individual or the family.
Children with autism look the very same as other children, there is no physical differences that shows a child has autism. A meltdown in public can be seen as a temper tantrum. People don't understand sensory overload and how the likes of a hand dryer in a toilet can effect a child to the extent that they run screaming from a bathroom. The parents know what will happen and a way to avoid this is to take the child into a disability toilet but since no one can see the disability then it can result in people passing negative remarks or worse should they see you coming out.
The child has no concept of social rules (and believe me we try and teach them) so they might push to the top of a line, or push past another child. They are seen as being rude and I have experienced where a child with autism was called an animal by another child's parent because of something like this.
Ben goes to an ASD specific school now, however when he was starting school we thought we would try him in mainstream school. Ben was not allowed to go to the summer camp run by the school because the teachers felt that the lack of routine during the summer camp would not suit a child on the spectrum so I was asked to keep him at home.
As soon as Ben got Chester we were able to go places that we could't go before and it didn't take two of us to be there all the time. We knew once Ben was attached to Chester then he wasn't going to take off on us and go missing. We knew he couldn't bolt out into the road and get knocked down.
People suddenly saw my child differently, they understood that there was a disability and they became much more supportive of all of us.
Ben started to answer people because they were asking him about his dog or talking to him about his dog and he started to engage more.
New places suddenly seemed less anxiety provoking for him, once he had Chester. It was like a safety blanket or something, Chester just made him feel safe. He started to be able to tell us how he was feeling without talking about himself. I'm not sure that he understood what was happening himself at the time, but he would say things like "Chester is feeling nervous too. I will go rub him". We quickly realised that Ben would say Chester is feeling A, B, C and it was Ben who was feeling that way. This made life for us much easier as well because we didn't have to second guess what was going on for him.
Ben was no longer lonely. He had a friend.
Since Chester came into our lives, we have been able to go on holidays, we go to the cinema, shopping, bowling. All things that people do every day without even knowing they are things, but they were for us, and now life is much easier
We know Ben is now safe and comfortable when we go out and while this only seems like one thing, this one thing allows us to live our lives the way other people do.
Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland gave us the best gift we have ever been given. They gave us a fuller more normal life".