Autism Awareness Month Celebrates Acceptance, Inclusion, and Understanding
Learn more about W.A.G.S. children with autism and how COVID-19 is impacting them
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April is Autism Awareness Month. Each year, Autism Awareness Month begins with World Autism Awareness Day recognized on April 2. The ultimate goal for this day and month is to educate, raise awareness, and promote inclusion for individuals on the autism spectrum.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that causes significant challenges in social, communication, and behavioral skills. Individuals with autism often don’t look different than their peers, but they may communicate, interact, learn, and behave differently than others. Around 1 in 54 children is diagnosed with ASD, according to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.
W.A.G.S. 4 Kids not only trains service dogs for children with mobility disabilities, but also trains service dogs for children with developmental disabilities like ASD. In fact, about 90% of the dogs W.A.G.S. 4 Kids trains and places are for children on the autism spectrum.
Currently in our country and our state of Ohio, we are in the midst of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In an effort to minimize the virus spread and protect Ohioans, Governor Mike DeWine has imposed rules and regulations – including a statewide stay-at-home order – that have changed life as we know it, coaxing us all into living a “new normal.”
Autism.org explains that individuals with autism may prefer to have a set daily routine because the world around them can often seem unpredictable and confusing. Even a slight change in routine for someone on the spectrum can cause overwhelming anxiety and difficulties adjusting. A disorder with a spectrum, each individual with autism has their own set of strengths and challenges. No two journeys of children with ASD are exactly alike, and some of our W.A.G.S. 4 Kids families have shared how they are navigating life when it comes to COVID-19.
Tyler was diagnosed with autism around age four. His lack of verbal communication can cause him frustration, and new situations and scenarios can lead to him being overwhelmed, frightened, or overly excited.
With in-classroom school being cancelled and a stay-at-home order put in place, Tyler’s mom Michelle explains how her son is adjusting.
“It has been a big challenge not being at school or therapy,” she explained. “Adjusting to life only inside this house with lack of structure or routine has been rough at times. Tyler’s compartmentalism makes doing virtual school work and therapy a struggle.”
In Tyler’s world, school life and home life are two separate things, but now he is working through combining the two – a transition that can be more difficult or overwhelming for individuals on the spectrum. Michelle did comment that Tyler has had fewer “tantrums” and “meltdowns” than she expected during this change.
A helpful tool during this process has been service dog, Tito, who was partnered with Tyler in September 2018.
“Tyler desires to have Tito near or around him so much more than ever before,” Michelle said. “Their bond becomes stronger and closer day by day.”
While staying at home for the health and safety of themselves and others has been an adjustment for the family, it is an adjustment for Tito as well.
“We think Tito is very aware that none of us have left the house or left him here alone,” Michelle said.
She explained that even with the change, Tito still knows his job is to be there for Tyler. Rather than greet Tyler and help him get off the school bus every day, Tito now has his boy home with him more often.
“As of today, we are surviving and things are going as well they can be,” Michelle concluded.
Tyler and Tito burning off some energy during the quarantine
Ryan was introduced to the W.A.G.S. 4 Kids family when he was 12-years-old. At that time, he was a middle school student struggling with going to school and forming friendships. Ryan’s goal was to become more independent and overcome these challenges.
In July 2017, Ryan was introduced to his service dog, Haywood.
After their partnership, things that used to be a challenge for Ryan – like going to school and making friends – turned into proud achievements. In fact, Ryan has turned Haywood’s birthday into an annual school-wide fundraiser.
Now, in 2020 with the COVID-19 regulations, Ryan is again facing change when it comes to schooling. His mom, Melissa, said the changes with cancelled school and staying at home have been very challenging for him.
“In our world, school happens at school and that doesn't cross into the safe zone of our home,” Melissa explained. “In Ryan's mind, these things must remain separate. Video calls with teachers in our living room are way out of his comfort zone.”
Melissa said that Haywood has provided Ryan a sense of comfort and calm during this period of uncertainty. Haywood also encourages Ryan to keep a daily routine and schedule that includes staying active outside in the yard.
“Shelter-in-place isn't going to keep Haywood from playing fetch with his beloved tennis balls,” Melissa said. “This little bit of normalcy helps Ryan cope with all of the unknowns.”
Thankfully, Ryan has a teacher and aide that recognize how much support Haywood provides for Ryan, and they found a creative way to help Ryan work through his feelings and anxiety. Ryan’s school language arts assignment is to write a “quarantine journal” from Haywood’s perspective.
“Ryan has been able to get creative and have fun imagining what Haywood must be thinking about not going to school,” Melissa explained. “Imagine a bored Haywood trying to learn to do a Rubik’s cube like Ryan. Or, when Haywood took over Ryan's computer and became a gamer!”
This assignment is fun for Ryan, but also helps him express himself in a way that can ease his anxieties and worries when it comes to mixing school life and home life. Incorporating his trusty sidekick Haywood brings a new perspective. While this is a school project, journaling from the mindset of their service dog can be a great way for other children to process what’s going on in the world around them, whether it be a global pandemic or a lesser change in their routine.
“Once this pandemic is over and we are able to return to school, I know that Ryan will also struggle with that transition,” Melissa said. “More importantly, I know that Haywood will be right by his side to help him navigate those challenges, too.”
One of Haywood's quarantine activities for Ryan's journal is becoming a video-gamer just like Ryan
Each child and family dynamic is unique, but maneuvering through a global pandemic brings us all together. It is natural to want calmness and routine – no matter if someone is on the autism spectrum or not. For our W.A.G.S. 4 Kids children and families, the challenges of this transition have been slightly eased with the help of a four-legged family member.
Stuart Duncan said, “Autism isn’t a disability, it’s a different ability.” It’s for children like Tyler, Ryan, and countless others that we “Light It Up Blue” every April in support of raising awareness for the ASD community.
We wish all members of our W.A.G.S. 4 Kids family tree strength and good health during this difficult time.
There are many ways you can help. While we understand not everyone is able, if you’d like to donate to help a future child receive their service dog, please click here.