Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A therapy dog for Max

I had mentioned before in an earlier post that one of our goals for Max was to get him involved in our church's Youth Program, the EDGE program. He had attended one session and let's just say, it didn't go well. At all.

I got repeated texts from Dennis (who agreed to come with him for the first meeting) about how things were going, and the more dismal updates I got, the more I knew Max would not be going back. It was discouraging, to say in the least. I knew it was going to be hard for him but I didn't expect it to go so badly either.

Normally, we push our kids when we need to push. We push them through the hard things that they have to encounter. That's usually the "healthy" way to go, to teach your kids to not give up.

With autism, however, it's different. There are times you need to push and times you need not to push. It is tricky and it's all about timing. You have to know your child's limits very well. You have to be willing to push them as far as you know they can go (not how far they are comfortable going) but you also have to know when to not push. Those are times of waiting and exercising patience and understanding--and none of those things are easy to practice.

I used to think that working with autism was just forcing things to happen, to go plowing right ahead and to keep going until your kid gets used to the situation.  But I've learned that forcing Max through these things when he's not ready not only doesn't work, but it makes him worse. He shuts down and is unable to take anything in, which means no new information is being processed. All he knows is that things are happening way too fast to process, and that is when "autistic tendencies" (rocking, humming) tends to kick in as his way of coping.

I'll never forget when I took him to the playground inside the mall one day. I used to take him often, knowing that something was "different" about Max in some way but not knowing exactly what. He wasn't like the other toddlers that interacted with one another and the only thing I could think of was to just keep exposing him to the same interactions over and over.

So one day I set him down at my feet and he went off to sit by his favorite slide while I sat nearby on a bench with the other moms. How I envied these mothers who could relax and not worry about their children. They either sat down with a book (this is before cell phones took over the world) or conversed with the mom sitting next to them. I, on the other hand, never could take my eyes off of Max for a moment, as he always seemed to wander away.

But one day, I decided to try to be like the other moms. I took out my book that I had brought and tried to get absorbed in the story, sneaking peeks to check up on Max who played nearby, not necessarily with other children, but at least by himself.

All of a sudden, I heard this horrible screeching. It was coming from a child, but the screaming was not a normal scream. It was a scream of fear, and it never stopped. Pretty much every mother jumped to her feet, looking for her child, but somehow, I knew it was Max and I was right. I ran right over to him, thinking he must be terribly hurt or something, but to my surprise, he sat on the floor unhurt. He had a blank stare on his face as he screamed over and over. The children around him had given him wide girth, some looking afraid, others looking confused. I picked up Max and tried to console him, but he continued to scream. I put my face in front of his, calling his name and trying to get him to look at me, but it was as though he couldn't see me. I had no idea what was going on, what was causing him to scream, but I did the only thing I knew what to do: I got him out of there.

Max has not had such a dramatic episode since then, but he still reacts as if in a trance if he is overwhelmed for too long. Except instead of screaming, he rocks or just stops talking completely, looking angry and confused. The only information he takes in is how afraid he is feeling, and so, to him, every situation is "bad" since that is the way he perceived it (even if everyone was friendly.) Sometimes he rocks, sometimes he shuts down, other times he tries to scare people away by glaring and even growling. And so for this reason, I have humbly learned that not even me, his mother, can push Max beyond his limits.

So as I was getting these texts from Dennis, I knew that our goal wouldn't be met. But it is imperative that Max have sort of social connection to keep him socialized with the world. So what to do. I stopped making school lunches for a moment to pray to God for help for Max.

And then, I noticed Joey, who had been sitting at me feet, waiting for some scraps of food to fall on the floor. And suddenly, I knew what to do.

Joey would be Max's therapy dog.

It was perfect. Max and Joey had a great bond already. Max loved Joey to pieces and both Dennis and I have noticed how his confidence soars when he can show people his dog. Not only that, but Max relaxes with Joey around. It was a perfect solution.

I quickly Googled everything I could about therapy dogs and even ordered Joey a therapy vest. In those 10  minutes, I learned that any dog could be a therapy dog as long as he was trained for it. (Unlike service dogs, that need a special certificate.) With me going into dog training, this was a perfect opportunity for me to practice what I've learned!

So when Max came home, all upset like I knew he would be, I was ready. He stormed in the house, threw down his take-home papers on the couch and said, "I am NEVER going back to that group again!"

I just smiled at him. "Would you go back if Joey came with you?" I asked.

Max stopped and ever so slowly, a little smiled began to work on his face. And I knew we had our hook and bait.

I suppose it was a little presumptuous of me to order a therapy vest for Joey before getting permission from the church first. Let's just say it was a leap of faith. Somehow, I felt that this was God's answer to our problem. A promise that He would see us through this homeschooling endeavor.

At any rate, our priest said yes as well as the Faith Formation leaders. We have been working with both Max and Joey at the church when no one else is around, training Joey to learn how to sit and stay, and just basically be there for Max.

We have yet to attend our first class with Joey as Max's therapy dog--and he already has chewed through one of the straps on his vest, that darn dog.

Will this work? I really don't know. Like everything else we've tried, we will have to give it time and see if it works. But I'm very excited that this could be the bridge to socialization...

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