The Fountains’ first truly enjoyable family outing was to the Norwalk Aquarium. The Stamford couple – Jem works 24 hours on/72 hours off as a Stamford firefighter and Cindy works at the non-profit Domus – had brought their boys to the aquarium before. Ryan, 4, and Thomas, who turns 6 next week, loved the fish.
But because Thomas, like many others with autism, has the tendency to wander, mom and dad didn’t get to see the fish.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 49% of autistic children (598 in a sample of 1,218) had attempted to wander at least once after the age of four. The term sounds benign, but the tendency has led to numerous deaths in traffic accidents and by drowning.
“Wandering,” also referred to as elopement, translates to a life of constant vigilance for those charged with monitoring an autistic child’s safety. A wily 5-year old like Thomas can put himself in harm’s way in a heartbeat.
“He’s fast,” said Jem. “He’s stealthy.” Living on tenterhooks was a way of life for the Fountains. “I would say, ‘I got him’ and Jem would know exactly what I meant,” said Cindy, describing the couple’s tag-team system for assuring there were eyes on Thomas at any given second. We never realized how stressed we were.”
But that was before Gabriel.
The day Cindy got the call from Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) saying there was an autism service dog ready to pair with Thomas was a happy day indeed.
The call was a great surprise because the Fountains had been told to expect a two-year wait and it had only been 18 months. But the matching process is not first-come first served, but rather about finding the right fit.
The 3-year old yellow Labrador named Gabriel was provided free of charge through GEB’s “Heeling Autism” program. BEG's autism service dogs are initially fostered by "puppy raisers." Then, along the way, a dog like Gabriel receives hundreds of hours of training from countless staff and many of GEB’s 1,400 active volunteers.
And, long before Gabriel came to live with the Fountains, there was an extensive application process, which included a home visit. GEB staff brought an autism service dog to the Fountains' to practice "the hook-up," to see if Thomas was allergic (he wasn’t) and to make sure he liked the dog (he did). The Fountains were then placed on a wait list.
Fast forward to this September when Jem attended a week-long class in Yorktown Heights, NY, where GEB has its training center. Attending the program along with Jem were four other parents, each paired with a dog. The dogs had been taught many commands, but Jem and the others had to learn to issue them successfully, and work as a team in a variety of settings. Trips were taken to the Danbury Mall and the supermarket, where service dogs must ignore potential distractions like food on the ground or loud noises.
After Jem and Gabriel completed their weeklong program, Cindy joined for a daylong training. Then, at last, after a graduation ceremony, GEB staff delivered Gabriel to the Fountains’ home.
Life with Gabriel
Now, esconced with the Fountains, Gabriel's routines are old hat. When his service vest goes on, his training kicks in. In fact, his demeanor visibly changes at the sight of the blue vest.
Once the vest is on, a 3-foot cord tethers him to a special belt worn by Thomas. As they walk along, Thomas typically holds the handle on Gabriel’s vest, but he also has the freedom to let go. “He can stop to pick up a leaf or a feather,” said Cindy. “It’s good for his confidence.”
Before Gabriel arrived, even a quick errand was impossible unless both parents were present. “I couldn’t just walk down our street with both boys. Ever. It was isolating,” said Cindy.
Indeed, having a child with autism is isolating, not just for the child, but for the entire family. So, it is not a coincidence that 95% of autism service dogs are Labradors.
“One of the reasons Labradors are chosen for autism service is to make the child approachable and accepted by their peers,” said Michelle Brier of GEB. “Labradors are both wonderful family dogs and highly adaptable.”
That said, Brier explained that any time a dog is wearing a service vest they should not be disturbed. "But, if you see the Fountains, by all means stop and say hi," she said.
Life is less stressful now for Cindy and Jem. If they're out and about and Thomas bolts, Gabriel plants himself and pulls in the opposite direction. Still mindful of Thomas, Cindy and Jem say the entire family has more freedom. Asked about potential future family outings Jem and Cindy didn't hesitate. “Camping,” said Jem. “Disney 2014,” added Cindy.
Gabriel can go anywhere other dogs typically cannot. This includes restaurants, airplanes, hospitals, and the dentist’s office. While Thomas attends Westover School, where he is in a class with 6 autistic children and mainstreamed for specials like P.E. and recess, Gabriel stays at home. Often Jem will take Gabriel to a explore a new venue while Thomas is in school. They learn the lay of the land in advance, then return with Thomas over the weekend.
Describing the recent period of adjustment, Cindy reflected. “We were still mourning the loss of the future we had envisioned for Thomas when we learned we were getting Gabriel. Before Gabriel, we didn’t have to let the world know our boy had autism." Cindy stopped to pat Gabriel on the head. "Once he arrived we couldn’t keep the autism secret.”
Now, tethered to Gabriel, the reaction of strangers is different. Maybe, in the past, if Thomas had a tantrum, strangers would react negatively. "Having a child with autism can be isolating," said Cindy. "But guide dogs make you feel welcome, included, encouraged, and people are very curious. They ask questions and are incredibly happy for us. The reception has been great.”
Thankful for the gift of Gabriel
Describing the September graduation ceremony when she became very emotional, Cindy reflected. “This is the biggest gift we will ever get as a family. How do you possibly ever say thank you for a gift this big?”