Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dogs Helping Autistic Children

Matthew Plunk pulls away from Ajax but can't go more than 2 1/2 feet, the length of the tethering strap securing him to the Great Pyrenees-boxer mix.

This, his parents say, is just one of the benefits of having an assistive dog to help their mildly autistic son navigate not just their Norcross home but the world outside.

Before they got Ajax, Jennifer Plunk said, Matthew was prone to darting away, especially if he became frightened or upset. And when he was in the middle of a meltdown, behavior common in children suffering from Asperger's syndrome such as Matthew, he was inconsolable.

Not with Ajax. He's trained to recognize the situation, and he moves in to nuzzle 7-year-old Matthew to avert the behavior.

Matthew was diagnosed with Asperger's at age 3. He was socially aloof and moved constantly, Plunk said. When the family ventured away from their home, people stared at him, and Plunk imagined they saw just another over-indulged brat — and a mother badly in need of parenting classes.

Now people see Ajax tethered to her son and are less judgmental and more empathetic, she said. When she saw a news special about assistive dogs, she knew then that "this could be something huge for Matthew."

Within months of receiving Ajax last year, Plunk said, Matthew started to change.

"He's more calm and comfortable in his skin," she said. "He's interested in what's going on around him, more in tune with people."

Kelly Martin hopes her son Carter can be so lucky. She believes an assistive dog could help him live a more regular life, too.

That freedom, however, comes with a $13,000 price tag, the price charged by 4 Paws for Ability. The Ohio-based nonprofit, where the Plunks got Ajax, trains service dogs for children and adults with various disabilities.

"It would be his own personal guide into this crazy world we live in," Martin said. "This dog will give Carter and my family back a lot of freedoms that we've had to forgo because it is too hard for Carter to do normal things."

No comments: