The first thing Candy Gubbels noticed was her son's slowness of speech. Her cousin's kids were speaking in sentences, but Jason's vocabulary was limited to a few words, specifically "thank you" and "I stuck" (which meant he wanted out of his high chair).
Then the words dried up altogether – a sign that both Candy and her husband Brad, both nurses, knew to be a symptom of autism.
Jason, 8, was three when he was officially diagnosed as being in the autism spectrum. In those preschool years, he would erupt in screaming/punching bouts that could last three to four hours. Exhausted, his parents had two full-time health-care professionals trying to help their son, and them, cope with a condition that puts children at huge risk of injury. Children with autism tend to "bolt" and can be gone in the blink of an eye.
"It was horrible in the beginning," says Candy. "When you hear the diagnosis, you grieve. All the dreams you have for your kids as normal, to see them going to school, graduating, having kids, you just see it all leaving," says the mother, who also has a 10-year-old daughter.
Two years ago, Candy applied to get a dog from Autism Support Dogs in Vancouver, a charity started in 2008 that has provided dogs to 30 families in British Columbia and Alberta.
The waiting lists are long, but Echo, a golden Labrador, finally arrived at the Gubbels's Richmond, B.C., home in February. Candy says Jason was elated and adores his new friend. It's meant safety for Jason and peace-of-mind for his parents: When the duo go outside, the two are attached via the dog's harness. If Jason tries to dart away, Echo sits, creating an anchor that prevents Jason from running.
What's more, Echo has a calming effect on Jason. If he sees him getting agitated, he'll lay a paw on his leg, or rest his head in Jason's lap.
"When Jason gets upset, I ask him to come and give Echo a hug. He just gets calm much faster. Instead of four hours, the flare-ups are now an hour or two. Jason's always been a really happy kid, even with the tantrums, but now with Echo in our lives, he just seems so much happier. More at peace," Candy says.
Specially trained service dogs for children with autism have become an indispensable tool for distraught families across Canada. Usually free of charge (charities cover the average $37,000 cost to train these specifically bred dogs), they are typically Labradors, golden retrievers, or a mix of the two, says William Thornton, president of Autism Support Dogs.
"Autism affects one in 68 children across the country," he says. "Prior to starting the autism program we were just dealing with dogs for the blind or visually impaired. But I heard about autism support dogs at a conference and was intrigued. I went to visit a family with an autistic child and support dog in Ireland and what struck me immediately is the benefits to the entire family, not just the child."
One of those benefits is togetherness.
"We're finding families are going out and doing things collectively where before they might have left the child at home to minimize the risk of a meltdown and a bolt," says Thornton, who has placed about 30 dogs with families in B.C. and Alberta.
Dogs such as Echo are provided by such agencies as Dogs with Wings (Edmonton), Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides (Oakville, Ont.), Autism Dog Services (Lynden, Ont.) and the Mira Foundation (Sainte-Madeleine, Que.).
By far the largest and most influential agency is Cambridge, Ont.-based National Service Dogs, which has existed for 18 years and has supplied 300 dogs to families from coast to coast. It also developed the sophisticated training program that has been used by autism support-dog groups around the globe. Danielle Forbes, executive director of National Service Dogs, says her group has also expanded its autism support to include service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We also have a canine-assisted intervention program," says Forbes, which provides dogs on loan to professionals (including social workers, psychiatrists, trauma counsellors and therapists) who work with people with special needs.
"We have a dog working with a kinesiologist who helps people physically recover from strokes. We also have two dogs working with school boards in Ontario to help manage children with behavioural issues. The dogs calm these kids down and help them re-engage with the classroom and other kids in a positive way."
Recently, Echo accompanied Jason on a school trip to Science World in Vancouver. The trip was a hit, Candy says, primarily because the dog's presence ruled out the risk that she might lose her son.
"Echo's given me relief. In public places, normally the second he's out of my sight, I panic," says Candy, 44.
"And I don't consider myself a panicky person. But Echo made sure he stayed with the group. He's a calming influence that has made a huge difference in our life."