A simple dash to the supermarket with the kids or a visit to the zoo were impossible for Teresa Brown and her family before they got their beloved assistance dog, Jason.
Teresa’s five-year-old son, Reilly, has autism, which means he can become overwhelmed by the noise and movement of highly stimulating environments like shopping centres, and when Reilly struggles to regulate his anxiety, he runs.
Mrs Brown said a trip to the local park when Reilly was three years old could have easily ended in tragedy.
“We were at an enclosed playground and I turned around for five seconds to talk to a friend,” Mrs Brown said.
“In that time Reilly managed to leave the enclosure, walk straight across the path and into the nearby creek.
“He has no sense of danger. He had no idea that that would be a dangerous.”
Luckily, Reilly was quickly pulled from the creek by another parent, but in that moment Mrs Brown knew she needed to do more to keep her son safe.
“Every time we’d see on the news a child with autism had gone missing, we just thought — this could be us.”
A year later, after a lot of research and raising $20,000 to help cover the cost of training an assistance dog, the Browns introduced Jason to their son.
Things started to look up.
“Jason is a goofy black Labrador, who when he’s in his service coat just becomes this beautiful, gorgeous gentle giant and helps us get around as a family,” Mrs Brown said.
“Without a doubt it’s changed our lives. We were a family in crisis before we got Jas. It means the world to us.”
The Browns gained independence
When they’re out in public, Jason wears the service coat, and Reilly wears a belt that tethers him to the dog.
If Reilly does try to run off, Jason knows to sit and act as an anchor.
With Jason’s help, the Browns started attending community events.
Now they can easily visit their local shopping centre without worrying they could lose Reilly.
“It’s meant being able to do normal, everyday things that other families take for granted,” Mrs Brown said.
Jason acts as an emotional support
At home or out and about, Jason helps to regulate Reilly’s anxiety, either by reading his moods or by responding to a command from his parents.
“If Reilly is anxious at home, I can say, ‘Jason touch’ and he’ll go and touch Reilly’s hand and then wait,” Mrs Brown said.
“There will then be an instant calm over the house.”
Reilly always struggled to sleep through the night, but his sleeping improved almost immediately after Jason arrived.
“Reilly would wake up at 1:30 in the morning and not go back to sleep for hours,” she said.
“And then because Reilly was so tired and exhausted, he was more anxious and everything was much harder to do.”
Jason now lies next to Reilly during story time, resting his head on Reilly’s lap and putting deep pressure on his stomach.
Mrs Brown said that within 10 minutes Reilly is settled and asleep — a task that would normally take two hours.
Dogs for Kids with Disabilities
Katie Hunter, the founder of Dogs for Kids with Disabilities, trained Jason, along with many of the other assistance and therapy dogs in Victoria.
Ms Hunter said labradors and golden retrievers were the breeds predominately used, as they are generally recognised in public as assistance dogs.
It takes two years to train a dog like Jason, costing the organisation around $40,000.
Ms Hunter said the insight dogs could offer autistic children was life changing.
“There’s always a chemical reaction in the body when you’re feeling anxious or stressed or in fight-or-flight mode, and dogs can smell that change, long before we can see it.”
For the Browns, it has been a dramatic change.
Two years after Jason arrived in their home, Mrs Brown said Jason has offered her family independence, sleep and — most importantly — involvement in the community.