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What is Autism, explained by a mom

    Josiah lives with autism. This is his life from his mom’s perspective.

    “Imagine you are autistic. You walk into a busy museum, and the lobby is filled with people. There is no direct way to travel through the crowd, and hundreds of voices are speaking at the same time. There are the usual clankings, buzzes, and dings associated with exhibits, and now you have to wait, in this chaos, with all the sounds and smells and sights, to get your ticket in order to proceed. Your senses are overwhelmed, and your brain will do one of two things: react or shut down. Reaction means, for you, that your body and voice lose control. You might shout, repetitively and loudly. You might run away. You might sit down and crack your heels on the floor just to reassure your body that the ground is there. But if you shut down, you might just lay on the floor. You might, again, run. Or you might refuse to enter the building at all. But one thing is for sure: either way you won’t be able to enjoy your visit because the world cannot accommodate your neurodivergence today.

    Enter a service dog. A real, bona fide, bred, and trained service dog named Spad. He’s a big ball of fluff and weighs nearly twice as much as you. When your brain makes you feel like a T.A.R.D.I.S. (lost in space and time), you can physically connect to something big and stable via a tether that connects you to the dog and grounds you. On your tether belt, you have fidget toys that you can roll in your fingers and hands. Or, you can run your fingers through Spad’s fur to calm your mind and body. You know that if you were to run away, Spad would find you, because he knows your scent and is bonded to you above all other humans. You also know that Spad will keep you safe because he will stop you from banging your head or cracking your heels on the floor. And, if you need a break, Spad will lay on top of you to provide the deep-pressure sensory input that reorganizes your brain.

    Until nearly two years ago, the first paragraph was our life. We never made concrete plans and often had to leave places as soon as we arrived because when Josiah was done, he was DONE. We have constantly worked to respond to Josiah’s needs, and have taken advantage of all the resources and accommodations we could, but by far the BIGGEST impact on his life experience has been the presence of a properly trained service dog. When I talk to foster families–the families who raise these dogs and then give them back to 4 Paws for advanced training–I can’t help but tear up, because our life has changed dramatically.

    Josiah doesn’t wake up and scream at night. Josiah tries new foods. Josiah waits in a crowded museum lobby for half an hour. Josiah doesn’t crawl under exhibits and refuses to come out. Yesterday, Josiah was able to verbalize when he needed a break, asked to go to the calm room (COSI has a nice quiet sensory room), and asked for Spad to do an over command, which Spad did as soon as Josiah asked (with very little guidance from me, his handler–it’s amazing how far our Spadster has come in a couple of years)!

    What this meant is that the boys and I got to enjoy two large exhibits and an IMAX movie without a meltdown and without having to leave early. This doesn’t just impact Josiah’s life; it means his brother Judah doesn’t have to give up experiences to accommodate his brother’s autism. It means I can enjoy those experiences, too. And, most importantly, Spad’s presence is an opportunity to spread the message of acceptance, support, and inclusion to the rest of the world. It’s hard to miss the big fluffy dog in the red vest, and his presence in society makes Josiah’s presence in society possible.”

    Josiah lost his service dog Spad in 2022 but is living with his new service dog, and best friend, Snorkel from the 2023 Lavender Class.