Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a soon-to-be-single mother of two special needs children.. I love duct-tape, MacGyver and was born thinking outside the box. I am an independent thinker who often got in trouble in school and college for speaking my mind and not following the crowd. As far as I’m concerned – that qualifies me to be one great special needs mother.
Not quite three months ago, I made an irrational, illogical and emotionally-based decision that I had been struggling with for over a year. My bipolar/add/LHON/anxiety/pediatric migraines with aura daughter (Bipolar Girl) was deeply depressed and unresponsive to medication, counseling, social events/play dates, etc. She constantly verbalized needing to feel loved and not receiving that feeling from anyone or anything. Due to her vision loss to LHON (Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy), we had discussed a service dog for her since her diagnosis. At the moment, my estranged husband and I are financially strapped with medical bills and the daily costs of special needs parenting like Dr. co-pays, medication, Dr. ordered special diets, therapy, psychiatry costs and more.
I watched as the stress of school, how state standardized testing drove her to suicidal threats and self-harm, the on-going divorce, the tight finances that you can never really hide from a child regardless of how those parenting experts may counsel you to and more drove my daughter into a pool of bipolar depression; I feared she might well drown in at any moment. I couldn’t stand another moment of seeing my daughter slowly becoming invisible and fearing she might never reappear. As a bipolar myself, I knew all too well the suicide rate for bipolarism is twenty percent. Friends and acquaintances chided me over and over about how I had my hands full with two special needs children, the divorce, how rough it would be to afford food and vet care, etc. I thought and prayed for days. I didn’t have any miracle answers to those challenges, other than that I knew somehow I would find a way. I’d like to tell you that divine inspiration came to me and I acted upon it. Instead, I made the only decision I could as a mother who loves her daughter more than life itself. I could not and would not watch depression and bipolarism take away the daughter I had prayed for my entire life.
We visited the animal shelter twice and both times my daughter gravitated toward a black and white mix that definitely had some hound in his background. He seemed too rough and wild in the ‘family meeting room’ where all family members in the household are required to meet with the dog. My estranged husband begrudgingly went along and made his disapproval of taking on additional responsibilities and expenses clear. But, as I’ve learned the past few weeks, I have to give him credit whether I am happy with our marriage or not. He went, he took the children to different cells and explained the pros and cons of each dog to both children. My daughter’s mitochondrial disease and other factors make her exceptionally sensitive to pain. While jumping up to be affectionate with my daughter in the ‘family meeting room’, Rex (the dog) tore out my daughter’s new earring out of her ear. After two visits and having an earring ripped out of her ear, she still begged for him. I signed the paperwork and paid the fees. Rex was given a final vet check and brought out to the waiting area. The volunteer handed me the leash and Rex promptly drug me down the hall on my knees. Again, my estranged husband stepped in and grabbed the leash to help me.
Rex seemed to know exactly what was happening and headed straight for our vehicle and jumped right in. That has been the on-going theme with him since we brought him home. He fit into our life and immediately both children started to improve their symptoms of depression and anxiety. While we still have a lot of training to do with Rex, he has already demonstrated some tasks that will officially qualify him as a service dog. My Asperger son was very upset and in a lot of pain after surgery recently. I was sitting on the bed and he came to me, grabbed me in a bear hug and knocked me on the floor. Rex immediately intervened and separated my son from me for safety. He did that with no training. He has also separated my two special needs children from physical fights for their safety. I hope to train him to bring my children their medicine in color-coded bags in my purse should they be unable to get up. When my daughter gets her migraines with aura, she loses her vision from 2-8 hours at a time. I also want to train one of the dogs to wear a halter and lead her to a safe place when she cannot see. My son needs his asthma medicine brought to him should he have a severe attack. We are a family that could greatly benefit from a service and/or psychiatric dog.
About seven weeks after adopting Rex, our Asperger son asked if he could also have a dog. This was amazing to me, since he had always been slightly afraid of dogs and acted nervous around them. So back to the shelter we went (with Rex, because their policy is you have to bring other dogs in your household). We found a beautiful black lab named Morgan who had a mass removed from the top of her head. As a cancer survivor myself, I immediately felt sympathy for her. The children and Rex loved her, so we completed the paperwork and took her home. She had a wonderful personality and was perfectly suited to be a service dog. But within a day or two, I noticed she had trouble walking and jumping. I took her back to the shelter vet (with the children) and received horrible news. She had a rare condition for dogs her breed and needed a complete knee joint replacement. The only choice I had was to pay up to four thousand dollars or surrender her to the shelter so that their charity group would care for her. We would not be allowed to adopt her afterwards. The children and I held her and cried. There was no choice. She deserved the best medical care and our finances couldn’t provide it. I told her how much I loved her and signed the paperwork. I refused her collar and leash, thinking leaving them at the shelter would be best for the children. Asperger Boy went back up to the counter and asked for them. He brought them home in a small box.
We came home. Defeated. In mourning. So for a few days the sadness overwhelmed us. Rex kept going through the house looking for Morgan and crying. He finally started laying in corners and showed clear signs of depression. My estranged husband came to me about three days later. He asked me if I had noticed how upset Asperger Boy was and how he kept taking the collar and leash out of the box and talking non-stop about Morgan to the point it was morbid. I was surprised when he asked me what I was going to do about it. This was the man who was against the first service-dog-in-training. I looked at him and told him I was glad he asked, because yes, of course I had noticed the psychiatric changes in the children and dog and was one step ahead of everyone. I showed him a female black lab approximately one year old at a shelter two counties away. We drove up the next morning. Tinkerbelle was in a terrible, dungeon-like cage but greeted us with a wagging tail and a smile. Again, I signed the paperwork and prayed I was making the right decision. We brought her home and immediately the atmosphere changed. Rex once again had a friend. The children’s lose of Morgan will never be filled, but Tinkerbelle has brought joy and love back to our home again.
Special needs and autistic children often have needs that cannot be filled by another human. Animals are the perfect friend and love to fill their needs for unconditional love. Our family has experienced this first-hand. I wouldn’t change any of my decisions. I found a vet who offers a discount for service animals. My children are so much happier and more stable – in a way that no medicine or therapy could offer. Sometimes…the love of a pet/service animal is the best medicine in the world. The most unconventional decisions in life sometimes bring the most wonderful, unique magic. It is a beautiful triumph in the special needs/autistic world to fill your home and life with magic that no pill, therapy or Dr. could provide. Our service dogs are the Earth’s creation of filling a void in my children’s life that requires no human medicine or intervention.
Please wish us luck on our journey, I have a feeling we will need it!
For information on service animals and training your own service dog:
Information on training your own dog:
I also recommend the following books:
Teamwork – a Dog Training Manual for People With Disabilities – revised by Stewart Nordesson and Lydia Kelley
Teamwork II – a Dog Training Manual for People with Disabilities by Stewart Nordesson and Lydia Kelley
Training your own Psychiatric Service Dog by Cdt, by Katie Gonzalez