“With Cyril walking beside him, the outside world now doesn’t seem so terrifying to Ben”
For Jo and Neale, their three year old son’s diagnosis of autism was life-changing. “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.”
Like many children with autism, Ben struggled to cope with the sights, sounds and smells of the outside world. His anxiety about the terror that lay behind the front door meant he would simply refuse to leave home. “We felt imprisoned in our own home,” Jo continues.
Ben also has serious sensory issues; just the sight of a hairdresser terrified him so much that he ‘bolted’ – straight into the traffic. “We became isolated, divided and lonely,” remembers Jo. “It was so stressful and dangerous to go out; one of us always had to stay at home with Ben. Our social life as a couple ground to a halt, we even went out separately with friends.”
A life-changing Labrador
After a two and a half year wait, the news Jo had been patiently waiting for finally came. They had been matched with a handsome black Labrador called Cyril. “I was ecstatic, I literally screamed with joy,” says Jo. “I just knew this would help Ben and also that it’d help us, too – we’d be able to go out together again. All I could think was ‘this is really going to change our lives’”.
Jo spent time bonding with Cyril and learning how best to work with and handle him at Dogs for Good’s Banbury centre and once her training was complete, she took Cyril home. Ben came home from school to find that 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 Ben. They bonded immediately and now it’s as if we’ve never been without him. It was definitely worth the wait and Cyril is absolutely the right dog for Ben – they’re perfect together.”
A safer, less scary world
With Cyril walking beside him, the outside world now doesn’t seem so terrifying to Ben. Attached to Cyril’s special ‘dual lead’ harness when they’re out and about Ben feels secure and protected. Cyril is trained to sit down if Ben shows any signs of distress which could lead to ‘bolting’ behaviour and when Cyril sits, Ben knows that he’s stopped and this in turn stops him from running off.
“Knowing that Cyril is by Ben’s side is a huge relief and my stress levels have definitely reduced,” explains Jo. “People’s attitudes towards us have changed, too: they can see Cyril is there to help Ben so we no longer suffer the disapproving looks and unkind comments which were so hurtful.”
The relief is massive for Jo and Neale and now they can go to restaurants, on shopping trips and even to play crazy golf together! Cyril also helps keep Ben calm at doctor and dentists’ appointments.
Recently, Cyril has helped Ben attend his big sister’s wedding; a massive achievement for a boy that previously, couldn’t leave the safety of his home. “With 100 faces that he didn’t know, a venue that he wasn’t used to and lots of emotions flying about, Ben was completely overloaded mentally,” explains Jo. “But with Cyril right by his side for him to reach out to, Ben made it through and everyone was so proud of him. Everyone attending knew that Cyril was there for Ben and respected their space and needs and we made sure that Cyril also got plenty of free time to relax and recharge his batteries. It was a real ‘proud mum’ day on so many levels!”
Jo has also seen improvements in Ben’s communications skills. “It’s like Cyril has given Ben a voice,” she explains. “We talk to Ben all the time about Cyril and he’s really trying to use the words we use and communicate back to us.”
To sum up, Jo says “Having Cyril has made the most tremendous difference – he’s completed our family and given us back our lives. It’s so lovely to see how excited Ben and Cyril are when they see each other at the end of the school day – they’re a real partnership. Ben is hugely reassured by Cyril’s presence and Neale and I have even been able to go out together as a couple again.”
Find out more about our autism assistance dogs for children.