Emily was diagnosed with autism when she was two and a half years old. Her dad, Steven Chilvers from Long Buckby in Northamptonshire, says that it didn’t come as a surprise. “We pretty much knew because the signs were there,” he explains. “She was non-verbal, didn’t make eye contact, would play repetitively etc. Her diagnosis simply meant that we could start to access the help we needed.”
In addition to very limited speech and repetitive behaviours, Emily’s autism means that wearing clothes and shoes is very overwhelming for her. In fact, she is only able to tolerate wearing one particular piece of clothing when she goes outdoors – a red dress. “Fortunately, her Nana is a wonderful seamstress so as Emily has grown, she has made her bigger versions of the red dress using the exact same material,” says Steven. “But obviously, not wearing shoes meant that getting her out of the house was a really difficult thing to do.”
Emily, now six years old, is a non-identical twin and her sister understandably found it hard to share life with a sibling who didn’t connect with her, hit out at her in frustration and who she wasn’t able to share a bond or positive relationship with. The family ended up, as many families with autistic children do, doing things separately; one parent would take Olivia out while the other stayed at home with Emily.
“It’s the simple things that you miss,” admits Steven. “Reading social media posts from friends who have been doing fun stuff all together as a family; meals out, shopping, holidays etc. Emily’s autism meant those things were almost entirely closed off to us.”
While Emily found it a struggle to form positive connections with humans, it was clear from an early age that she bonds closely with animals. And the bigger the animal, the better Emily likes it. “She has a particular fascination for cows!” says Steven.
Steven’s wife, Dawn, had heard about the positive impact that dogs can have on autistic children and contacted Dogs for Good to find out more about an autism assistance dog for Emily. “We filled out an application form, went through the assessment process and waited for the right match,” continues Steven.
Finding a match
The right match came in the form of a tall, gangly, handsome black Labrador called Oslo. “He’s big, so that was a bonus for Emily from the get-go!” smiles Steven. “He came for a visit with his Instructor and Emily responded very positively to him straight away.” Dogs for Good were confident that the match was a good one and before long, Oslo started his new life with Steven, Emily and the rest of the family in July last year.
Steven is the ‘team leader’ in the partnership between Oslo and Emily which means that he takes overall responsibility for Oslo. “I spent a lot of time with Oslo’s instructor so she could gradually show me how to get Oslo to trust me and bond with me, how to use the right commands for the task-work he’d already learned and how to make sure I was able to recognise and meet his welfare needs.”
The impact of an assistance dog
Oslo has only been with the family for a short while but already, his presence has made a very big difference.
“We’ve noticed that Emily’s speech has really come on,” explains Steven. “She will say ‘Oslo’, ‘hug’ and ‘doggy’ now as well as sentences such as ‘take Oslo for a walk’. In addition, she wasn’t ever great at getting up but now, we send Oslo into her bedroom in the morning armed with sniffs and licks and all we hear is Emily giggling – obviously a far better way for her to start the day.”
Oslo, now two years old, provides motivation and distraction for Emily and that means that she will now even tolerate wearing slip-on shoes and putting on a coat because she knows that it means going for a walk with Oslo. “After a few small walks, she’s happy now to hold onto Oslo’s harness and go for a walk with us to the local shops to get an ice cream. She’s really happy being with him and the other day, she even sat down beside him to give him a cuddle. For a non-cuddly child, that’s a big thing and a clear demonstration of her bond with him.”
Best of all, because of Oslo’s calming presence, the family are now able to go on outings and on holiday together. “We recently went to the Sea Life Centre at Birmingham which was lots of fun and we all had a great time. We also went to Huntstanton beach and on the way back, stopped off for a coffee and a break at the services. Simple things but things we’d never have been able to do before Oslo came into our lives and provided a positive focus for Emily.”
Oslo has fitted in very quickly and naturally and Steven reports that “he’s a really happy, wonderful dog. He really enjoys working with Emily, loves his ball and we all love him. We can’t imagine life without him now.”