Human love isn’t always the answer.
At the age of 7, Joey was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that affects one in 500 people.
While Amanda says that they are “best friends” and her relationship with her son has always been very open, affection was something that just didn’t happen between them. One of the issues that Joey faces with Asperger’s is sensory processing, which in his case means that he gets over-stimulated in loud environments and may hit or bite himself. “I remember one time when he was 5 years old and he wouldn’t hold my hand in a mall parking lot,” says Amanda. “He had a meltdown and we had to leave.”
And then about a year ago, Joey, then 13, started asking for a dog.
He didn’t really connect with the family’s Chihuahua, and he wanted a pet to take care of himself. “I didn’t want another dog,” says Amanda. “I am a single mom with three sons, and we already had a dog. But then I saw that the Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles was having an adoption event to get 100 dogs adopted in 100 hours…and I saw a picture of Roxy.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
The first photo of Roxy that Joey ever saw.
Joey saw her picture, too, and convinced his mom they needed to be at the shelter at 7:30 a.m. the next day because he was afraid someone else might get her first.
Roxy, now almost two years old, is a blue/gray pit bull terrier that was listed as an American Staffordshire Terrier on the website. Amanda didn’t realize that a Staffordshire is essentially a pit bull, so when Roxy came walking out, Amanda was worried. She didn’t have any experience with the breed and had only heard bad stories about pit bulls.
“Roxy ignored all the other dogs when she was walking through the shelter, came into the room, and went straight to Joey and sat in his lap,” says Amanda. “Their connection was immediate.”
Once she saw that Roxy didn’t have a mean bone in her body, Amanda signed the paperwork and it was a done deal. As they walked out, Amanda heard that four other people had asked about Roxy. Joey was right to want to get there first thing in the morning.
The connection between Joey and Roxy has only grown stronger since they brought her home.
“I’m a dog person, and I’ve never experienced a bond like this or seen anything like it in my life,” says Amanda. Their goal is to train Roxy to be an emotional-support dog or a service dog.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA GRANADOS
Joey and Roxy
All of Joey’s relationships have changed since Roxy came into his life—he has a ton of friends, he’s bonded with his brothers, and most of all, his relationship with his mother has changed. “He wants to cuddle, and he had never given me a spontaneous kiss before—but now he kisses me all the time,” says Amanda. “It might not sound like a big deal, but it is.” People with Asperger’s often have a difficult time showing affection or have a sensitivity to touching other people, but because of his bond with Roxy, Joey has been able to show his mom how much he values their relationship. And to Amanda, that’s priceless.
Joey’s a great example of what research has already suggested: that animals may help children on the autism spectrum learn a variety of skills, and those children that grow up with a connection to a pet tend to have better social skills. If you’re considering a pet for your child with autism, Amanda has a tip for you: “It has to be the right one,” she says. “It has to be the child’s choice.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA GRANADOS
Roxy at home.
While most children benefit from simply having any kind of animal in his or her life, it can be a bit confusing to figure out whether it’s best to get a pet, a therapy animal, an emotional-support animal, or a service animal.
Here’s some clarification:
A pet is probably a concept you’re already familiar with—a regular pet who lives at home and can go where other pets can go but has no special rights or privileges under the under the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
A therapy animal is friendly and receives training to support the mental health needs of others. A therapy dog typically visits people in need at places such as hospitals, schools, libraries, psychologist/psychiatrist offices, hospice, etc. and is encouraged to be social. A therapy dog receives no special rights, either.
An emotional-support animal does not undergo training, and their main job is to be a source of comfort to their owners. An emotional-support dog is able to live with their owners in places that have a no-pet policy. Some people even keep mini horses as emotional-support animals.
A service animal has the most rights under ADA and is trained to perform specific tasks for his/her owner. It helps the human achieve a level of independence that wouldn’t be possible without the dog. A service dog isn’t encouraged to be social and is able to be with his human wherever he/she may go. For more information on service dogs, visit theNational Service Animal Registry.
Amanda says the social-emotional benefits of having Roxy have transformed Joey’s life—and hers. “Joey interacts with his brothers and can connect 100 percent with Roxy,” she says. “No matter what kind of day he has, she will be there for him. Joey is her human. The one thing that Joey wants everyone to know is that kids with autism are misunderstood, and so are pit bulls.”
Abbie Mood is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about a variety of topics, such as education, animals, adventure travel, and human and environmental issues. She is based in Colorado and tries to get out to the mountains with her dogs as much as possible.