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 Article of Interest - Asperger's Syndrome and Companionship

LOVE UNLEASHED: 4-legged therapist helps teen learn to socialize, verbalize
by Cindy Wolff, May 18, 2003, GoMemphis.com
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Jim and Laurie Bond say they owe a lot to their dog, TJ.

The couple credit the golden retriever with bringing their 14-year-old son Jeb out of a shell, transforming him from a loner who seldom communicated into a more social, active teen.

How? Unconditional love.

Jeb has Asperger's syndrome, which is akin to autism, the neurological disorder that affects normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.

TJ is a service dog whose job is to interact with Jeb; to provide him with a social tie and love. Only the nylon vest that she wears on outings gives away the fact that she is more than a pet.


For Jeb, the dog is leading the way to normal teenage life.

Jim Bond said the family, whose home is just outside Earle, Ark., knew when Jeb was a toddler that something was different. They spent years putting Jeb through tests to understand why he was withdrawn and inflexible and lacked the basic social skills other children his age. His schoolwork suffered and the family tried various medications, including Ritalin, until they got the Asperger's diagnosis.


"It was like we were broadcasting on 56 and his radio was tuned to 680," said Bond. "We went through a lot of diagnoses for different disorders until Asperger's."


More than 400,000 families are affected by Asperger's syndrome, according to the National Institutes of Health. The prevalence rate for the affliction in the United States is 1 in 500, higher than that for multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome or cystic fibrosis.


People who have Asperger's function at a higher level than those with autism.

Once Jeb was correctly diagnosed, his family was able to put him on the proper medications and he began to grow physically. He started speech therapy, and was showing marginal improvement, but he still had difficulty with social skills.


Jeb's aunt read an article about a group in Concordia, Kan., called Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services (CARES), which provides service dogs for people with all types of disabilities, except blindness or hearing impairment.


Founded in 1994, the nonprofit organization places close to 60 dogs a year with people who need a companion animal to pull a wheelchair, fetch items around the house, alert residents to the doorbell or phone, or as with TJ, to provide a social benefit.


"Each child who has Asperger's, which is a high-functioning form of autism, has different needs," said Sarah Hollowell, CARES chief executive officer. "Having the dog helps them to meet their goals, such as learning social skills, talking to other people, fitting in, self-confidence, learning appropriate communication skills."


The child is responsible for praising or correcting the dog, and the dog provides communication by having an instant response, Hollowell said.


About a year ago, the Bond family traveled to Concordia to spend a week in a dormitory learning how to handle TJ.


"When people see TJ in a service vest they might ask Jeb if he's blind or deaf and want to know why he has the dog," said Hollowell. "We help Jeb address those issues and understand how to take care of TJ."

 

At first, there wasn't much change in the Bond household, beyond the adjustment by the two cats to a rambunctious retriever.

But then there were subtle differences. Jeb began to initiate conversation, and started to get involved in activities at school.


He joined the golf team and the school choir at West Memphis Christian, where he's in the seventh grade. He also made honor roll, something that had never happened.


"Jeb became more approachable," said Colleen Dublin, who was his speech language pathologist. "The dog is not a cure-all for all his social behaviors, but it's made him a happier person and easier for people to talk to, which is a start."


Lisa Anderson, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in West Memphis, said TJ has had a calming effect on her owner.


"He used to get up and leave in the middle of a service," said Anderson. "Now he'll sit the whole time with TJ at his feet. He initiates conversation and other kids want to talk to him."


For someone who doesn't know Jeb, there aren't many social skills to see.

Ask him what he likes about the dog, he shrugs. It's TJ's job to accept Jeb, no matter what his mood. TJ comes if Jeb wants her to. If not, she plops down and chews her ball.


But when TJ rolled over on her back, Jeb rubbed her stomach, and began petting the family's other dog, Nap.

"You're a good dog," Jeb said to TJ. "I love you." 

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