Mama. Dada. Birdie. Bye-bye. Doggie. No-no-no.
They were among the last words that Maya Kaler spoke eight years ago.
Her mother grew concerned even before Maya’s intellectual peak at the age of 18 months, when the little girl became ill with a fever.
“I’d compare her to other kids and see not quite what the other children were doing,” says her mom Nicole. “But she was still progressing, which is why it was hard for me to get her diagnosed.”
After a while, Maya’s differences became more obvious.
She would fall over easily, she wouldn’t speak a word and would distance herself socially from others, never wanting to leave the house.
She was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Today, a smile while looking into her mother’s eyes is considered a major interaction.
“She was a five-year-old still in a stroller,” Nicole says. “Just to get her out… she had the comfort of being in her own little world.”
Walking beside Maya in her stroller were younger siblings Uma and Deven.
For years, she was taught in her therapy room at home (and later at school), learning simple tasks that her siblings picked up easily.
Getting Maya outside in the community with her family has been a big challenge for years.
She has anxieties her parents recognize but still don’t quite understand.
The smell of leather, for instance, sends her into fits.
“Payless Shoes is never going be a place that she can tolerate, so there’s a lot of buying shoes and taking them home and trying them on,” her mother explains.
In once incident, Maya had a meltdown at the house of a family friend. The reason, the friend deduced, was that two doors down, someone was cutting wood with an electric saw.
The noise was barely perceptible to the others, but Maya was ultra-sensitive to it.
The walk along the path to her school has always been a source of tantrums, as are line-ups at stores.
“When you’re out as a family, something can be ‘off’ and she full-on tries to get away and it becomes a situation where you can’t go out.”
Enter PePe, a three-year-old female chocolate Labrador retriever.
PePe, a working dog as much as a new family pet, is among the growing ranks of autism support dogs in B.C.
“For me, she’s like my anti-anxiety pill,” explains Nicole. “I know once I hook Maya up to her, nothing’s going to happen to Maya. She’s not going to have the opportunity to bolt.”
It took a few months with a strong, furry anchor for Maya to learn that it did no good to try to take off in a grocery store line or on the pathway to school.
She simply gave up.
The relationship between Maya and PePe remains conservative.
“The purpose of the dog is not to make Maya independent,” Nicole explains.
“It’s not like a seeing-eye dog. It’s not that ‘girl and her dog running across the field to each other’ sentimental thing that people picture, yet it’s still such a huge impact on our family dynamic and how we operate.”
PePe will keep Maya’s brother and sister company, for instance, while Nicole and her husband Darshan deal with a Maya crisis.
Nicole believes that some bonding between Maya and PePe developed in Disneyland last year.
“Why is this fun?” their eyes pleaded in unison.
But the family trip would never have been possible without PePe.
There are other new opportunities for Maya with PePe at her side.
Now 10, she has got a handle on swimming, but doesn’t understand skating – “Why would you go to this cold place and slip on the ground?” asks her mother rhetorically. “She always had a look on her face that says this doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Training of dogs to assist children with autism began in 2008 as more requests came into BC Guide Dog Services, which provides dogs to assist people with visual impairment.
“It wasn’t lost on us that there was more that could be done,” says Autism Support Dogs chairman Bill Thornton.
Since 2008, 11 dogs have graduated and been provided for children with autism. Seven more are expected to graduate by the end of 2011.
Since the Ladner-based Autism Support Dogs is essentially an unstaffed fundraising arm of BC Guide Dogs, the main body provides the administration, dogs and training for autism support by four certified instructors.
The friendly, intelligent and docile Labrador dogs are ideal for both types of work.
Thornton says there are plans for a regional training centre for autism support dogs.
“I believe it’s going to be as large as the guide dog program. We’ve got a lot of people applying.”
For more information about Autism Support Dogs, a registered charity, visit www.autismsupportdogs.org and www.bcguidedog.com
Benefits of autism support dogs:
• Increase safety for the child;
• Control the child by commanding the dog;
• The child is passively taught responsibility;
• Under the B.C. Guide Animal Act, autism support dogs enjoy the right of full public access;
• Positive changes in the child’s behaviour – lower aggression and frustration;
• The child is comforted when upset;
• Meeting the needs of parents for a degree of predictability in social settings for the child and themselves.