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The Mother’s Day That Changed My Family Forever

By Ellen Dampf
May 11, 2019
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I am a mom.

My son is autistic.  My daughter is neurotypical. My husband is loving and present.  Our journey through autism is a little bit different.  My son was born premature at 23 weeks and weighed just 15 ounces.  14 years ago, this was a death sentence.  He had less than a 20% chance to survive.

He had many medical issues to work through and now, he is in a healthy place.  Because of his prematurity, he had always been categorized as developmentally delayed and failure to thrive.  For years, we were told he needed time to catch up.  Deep down, I knew…my gut told me autism….but they were right.  Let’s give him a chance.  When he was 8, I pushed for testing.  The results came back that he just missed the spectrum.  No diagnosis.  It wouldn’t define him, but we’d be able to have services that he was already late receiving.

When he was 11, everything changed. It could have been hormones or any other environmental factors.  Who knows?  My sweet boy turned into Satan and the Tasmanian Devil rolled into one.  We had Mobile crisis involved, calls from school daily, med changes. One time, he broke a window at school.  He became physical with me and my husband.  Never my daughter, though, thank God. I was living a life that I would have bet belonged to someone else.  It’s like having an out-of-body experience. 

All the signs were there.  He was tested again and received the official diagnosis.  We had behavior therapists on board, a new psychiatrist to manage his meds.  We were good to go, right? WRONG!

Every morning when my husband and I would wake up, we had to consciously instruct ourselves to put one foot in front of the other.  I would tell myself, “You’ve got this. Giddy-Up. Today is not the day that will break you”.  All the appointments, meetings, therapists in and out of the house was a lot for everyone to adjust to.  It was especially hard on my daughter, who was just 9 at the time.  She didn’t fully understand why all of this was necessary and why her home was in constant chaos.  Her solution? A dog. She wanted comfort and a friend.

My son continued to escalate. Nothing was getting better after months of programs, therapy, new meds, the whole sha-bang.  It was recommended to look at outpatient day programs for intensive therapy and help.  I couldn’t get him into a mental health program, because at the time he had a feeding tube and needed medical assistance.  I couldn’t get him into a behavior program at a hospital because other kids enrolled were also medically fragile. If he escalated and became physical, it would put them at risk.

There was nowhere for him to go.

I spent all hours crying and hyperventilating to the directors of these programs, promising them a kidney if I had to. Nope. My only option now was to have him fully committed to a hospital, but that would need to be done in a time of crisis and in an emergency.  That would be traumatic and devastating for everyone.  My family was living hour by hour, not knowing what to do.

Feeling at though I needed to do something, I researched dogs and various breeds.  I wasn’t completely serious about getting a dog.  The “FIX-IT Mom” trait was emerging, and I was grasping at straws.  On a whim, my husband and I visited a kennel (still with no intention of getting a dog) and was introduced to this small, white fluffball.  That was it.  That was the one. My husband wanted a big manly dog, so he vetoed the purchase. He made valid points that we weren’t ready for a dog and this decision shouldn’t be spontaneous.  This kennel regularly had this breed, so when we were ready, we could come back and get on. First, I had to win the small dog argument.

After we left without the dog, a feeling came over me that it had to be THAT one. No other would do. Her demeanor, cuteness, everything.  Admittedly, I took lessons from my kids and threw several tantrums, whined, pouted, and wouldn’t give up.

24 hours later, I woke up.  Mother’s Day. Still relentless, I started the day begging. My husband gave in, realizing never to doubt my gut.

Mother’s Day… the day that changed my family.  We welcomed this dog into our lives.  I always heard that dogs were good for autistic children, but didn’t really grasp what that meant.  I can’t explain it. My family, our days, did a complete 180.  My son immediately calmed down; no longer physical, and his escalations became easier to manage and prevent. 

Mother’s Day… from that day, I never again looked at or thought about outpatient programs or committing my child. If he gets frustrated and has an episode, I direct him to the couch and bring the dog to him to hold.  She calms him and enables him to put his frustrations into words.  He has a picture at school that the teachers use to help him.  One of our in-home therapists said that in all of her years and of all of her families, she has never seen a child love a dog the way that my son loves our dog.  There was something about that dog when I first met her, something special.  And for the sake of my marriage, I am so glad I was right!!

Mother’s Day…. the day that brought pure joy to my daughter and helped return her childhood to a place of normalcy (as normal is for our household). 

Mother’s Day… the day that gave my children something to bond over, play together and fight about.  I didn’t realize how much all of us needed this dog.  My husband and I joke around and call her our Xanax.

Mother’s Day…. the day that, for the past 3 years, is not about me, but about the dog and that is fine by me.  Don’t get me wrong, we still have our typical autism peaks and valleys, but that dog saved us.  My favorite part of every day is seeing the companionship and unconditional love that radiates from my children.

Never underestimate the power of the bond between a dog and an autistic child.

I would never have believed it myself if I didn’t live it.

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