The news finally came. An autism assistance dog called Cyril had been matched with Ben, a young son to Mum Jo and Dad Neale.
“I was so ecstatic, I literally screamed with joy,” says Jo. “I just knew this would help Ben. All I could think was ‘this is really going to change our lives’.”
When Ben came home from school to find Cyril had arrived, “it was unbelievable,” says Jo. “Cyril just followed Ben straight into the playroom and lay down beside him. He just seemed to know instinctively he was there to help him.”
A tough diagnosis
Ben’s diagnosis of autism at age three was a devastating shock to the family. “As a mum, my world came crashing down,” says Jo, “our plans for Ben’s future – a job, marriage and a family, just melted away. And the problems just seemed to magnify as he grew older.”
Going out at all became a huge issue. “We felt imprisoned in our own home,” says Jo. “The transition from house to the car, never mind going out somewhere, was enough to trigger a ‘meltdown’.”
Like many autistic children, Ben struggled to cope with the sights, sounds, smells and crowds of people in a shop or on the streets and waiting in a queue would be impossible.
Anxiety about these terrors meant Ben would simply refuse to leave home. Once, when Jo and Neale did manage to get Ben out, just the sight of a hairdresser terrified him so intently he ‘bolted’ straight into traffic.
“We became isolated, divided and lonely,” says Jo. “It was so stressful and dangerous to go out at all; one of us always had to stay at home with Ben. Our social life as a couple ground to a halt.”
Autism assistance dog
When help came, the relief for Jo and Neale was intense: “I just knew Ben would be safe at last, now that we had Cyril. We’d be able to be a family again and go out together,” says Jo. “They bonded immediately and now it’s as if we’ve never been without him.”
Jo, Neale and Ben are able to go together to restaurants, out shopping and to play crazy golf. Cyril helps keep Ben calm at doctor and dentist surgeries. Attached to Cyril’s special harness, Jo knows Ben is safe and Ben himself feels secure and protected.
Cyril is trained to sit if Ben shows signs of distress, which could lead to ‘bolting’. “That’s a huge relief and has reduced my stress levels too,” says Jo. “People’s attitudes to us have changed as well,” she continues. “They can see Cyril is there to help Ben so we no longer get those disapproving looks and unkind comments which were so hurtful.”
“Having Cyril has just made the most tremendous difference,” says Jo. “It’s so lovely to see how excited Ben and Cyril are when they see each other in the playground at the end of the school day. They’re a real partnership.”
Things have improved for Jo and Neale too. “Ben is so reassured by Cyril’s presence, we’ve been able to go out together as a couple again,” says Jo. “Cyril has completed our family and given us back our lives.”