We want our children to grow up to be strong, capable, and feel supported but with an autism diagnosis that can sometimes feel impossible. We've got to get creative and for me it took two little Yorkies trained alongside German Shepard protection dogs.
My two little Yorkies were not lap dogs…
15 years ago, they were trained alongside German Shephard protection dogs. Yes, picture two little black and tan Yorkie puppies trained along with German Shepards. Not something you see often, and in fact, the retired military man who trained them at first told me no. He was called “The Sarge,” and when I told him I wanted my two Yorkies to be trained by him, he said he never trained Yorkies and wasn’t going to start. It took me just 30 minutes to persuade him to train my two little Yorkie puppies.
And after they spent a few days with him, I was allowed to visit my dogs. I found The Sarge disheveled, but my little Yorkies were bouncing around with energy. He said to me “You can’t separate these two. They can’t even be in different rooms. I have to have two trainers working with them at the same time. I can’t believe I’m training Yorkies.” The Sarge was an honorable man and kept his commitment to training them. My two little dogs were loyal and fierce…and now well trained.
As most pets do, my dogs gave me comfort whenever I needed it.
My daughter was diagnosed in 2013 with severe autism when she was 3.5 years old. For the first six months after her diagnosis, I went through a whirlwind of emotions. More like a ferocious tornado…some days were hopeful, but most were dark and angry. Even though that was just five years ago, the field of autism was very different back then. Only in 2016 was a scientific report published stated that ~10% of those diagnosed with autism heal from it entirely. It was 2013, but eventually, the fierce rebel in me took over. Deep in my heart, I knew my daughter could heal from autism…I could see it…I just didn’t know how I was going to make that happen.
The world of autism has changed alot in 5 years!
Thankfully now esteemed physicians encourage parents that a wonderful life for their child with autism is possible. Recently, I spoke with Dr. Mark Hyman, author of 11 #1 New York Times bestselling books including Food: What the heck should I eat? about this and he said “What parents often hear when their child is diagnosed with autism is ‘we’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do. You can try some behavioral therapy but be ready for a long, difficult life.’ This advice is wrong. There is so much that can be done.” What Dr. Hyman says today is what I knew in my heart back then.
My daughter's childhood was different...
I had these two wonderful, loving dogs but for most of my daughter’s life she never acknowledged them. She didn’t play with them. Other kids loved to learn the commands and then boss the dogs around. For my daughter, there was none of that…in the beginning.
More than ABA was needed
Part of my vision for her was that she becomes a responsible person and cares for others. I needed more than ABA to do this. So to teach her responsibility and to care for others I decided we would feed the dogs their dinner before we ate ours. Sounds simple but it wasn’t. I combined a lot of educational techniques in teaching her responsibility. There’s ABA, RDI, PRT but then I also incorporated OT, PT, and ST all rolled into this lesson of caring for an animal and learning responsibility.
The dogs were trained not to eat unless told to eat…the command was Let’s Go. My daughter was completely non-verbal when she was younger, and we worked with her speech therapists to teach her to say Go.
So the feeding went like this…
My daughter had to pick up their dinner bowls and hand them to me. I put the food in, and she put the bowls back down, careful to not spill any food. I would call the boys, and they would sit then lay down on the floor near their bowls. They were trained not to move, and they never did. I would say to my daughter “All right, tell the boys they can….” and she would say Go. Now, in the beginning, her speech was very garbled, and I am sure she was thinking Go, but that is not what it sounded like when she said it. So she would be facing the dogs, and I would stand behind her and give the boys the silent hand command to go eat. She never saw me give the silent hand commands. I wanted my daughter to develop her voice.
Healing her gut changes everything!
Now of course, in the beginning, her motivation was to get the dogs fed so that she could eat. Food is a great motivator, but I also started healing her gut, and as that healed, she wasn’t driven by food so much, and she actually started to relish being able to command the boys to go. I used to laugh to myself watching my daughter do this because I never would’ve imagined that getting these little Yorkies highly trained by The Sarge would one day help me reach my daughter. I started wanting to have the dogs teach her responsibility, and they also taught her to be empowered and confident.
Isn't that what we want for our children?
We want our children to grow up to be strong, capable, and feel supported. We want them to learn how to stand up for themselves and how to stand up for others. Reading, writing, and arithmetic is only one component to life. Like you, I want my daughter to be happy, grow to her fullest potential, be able to handle anything in life that comes her way with ease and grace. But to do that I have to allow her to develop her own voice and that means sometimes standing behind her so she can grow and thrive and show me, and herself, how good she is at finding her own solutions — autism or not, that's empowerment.