As part of World Autism Awareness Month (April), KamloopsMatters is highlighting the impact an autism support dog, provided by B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs, has had on a local family.
Bobi Fernandes is brought to tears when she thinks about how much of a difference Corky — an autism support dog — has made in her son's life.
Kye, 10, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at 16 months.
"As Kye got older, he got quicker and faster. He was completely unaware of danger, so running into the street, he doesn’t think about it. There’s no cause and effect," says Fernandes, adding there's been "hundreds" of scary moments over the years.
Running errands, like getting a few groceries, became nearly impossible. Kye, who is mostly non-verbal, would just take off.
"If one of us just went out, it always was a failure," she tells KamloopsMatters. "We always had two adults go out, one that could have their hands on Kye and be with him one hundred per cent, and the other person would do what needed to get done."
At age five, Fernandes and her husband John reached out to B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs to get their son one of their yellow lab retrievers.
"We thought it would be a fairly quick process, but it wasn't."
It would take five years for the family to be matched with their beloved Corky.
When that moment did come, last Halloween, Fernandes remembers breathing a sigh of relief.
"It was the first time that we realized, 'Oh my god, we’re going to be able to go out, in public.' Even just to go for a walk at Riverside or McArthur, we don’t have to worry about him heading to the river."
When on duty, Corky has two harnesses: one is tied to Kye and the other is a leash held by Fernandes or John. If Kye decides to bolt, Corky sits.
"That alerts me that Kye's running or is trying to. Then I'm able to say, 'Kye, no, we're going this way.'"
Fernandes says besides the physical benefits of having Corky around, there are many emotional bonuses as well. She says the relationship between the two is priceless.
"Kye has never been a huge animal person. He doesn’t like to touch a lot of things he’s not sure of; for animals, it’s fur. We kind of worried he wouldn’t pair (well) with (Corky). The pairing has been very gradual and slow, but now, the bond... Corky kept being relentless and just kept going to Kye, and always wanting to be around Kye, and basically forced Kye to actually touch him and feel him. ... Every day, we see more and more of a connection."
Fernandes gives the example of when the family's at the playground and other kids come by to check out the dog in the blue vest. She says Corky's eyes are always on Kye.
"I think (Kye) understands more than we’ll ever know. I think the more loyalty Corky shows to Kye, the more loyalty Kye starts showing back."
Corky has also helped with Kye's need for pressure. Before Corky, Fernandes would do compressions on her son or give him extra tight hugs. Now, Corky does the job by sitting on him.
Even though it took five years for the match, Fernandes considers herself lucky.
"With Kye, we were able to get his behaviours in check when he was very little, but a lot of ASD families are dealing with kids who are so frustrated, and not being heard or not having their needs met because they can’t figure out what their needs are. Then they self-harm. They feel anxious because they have no friends.
"There are so many other components that we don’t require the dog for but other families do… If you’re looking to change a family’s life, donate to a service dog. It’s a great way to change the outcome for somebody with ASD. The quality of life you’re giving them is so much better than what they had without the dog."
Bill Thornton, CEO of B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs, says 15 people are currently on the waitlist for an autism support dog, and another 35 are waiting to get on that waitlist.
"There's always going to be a waitlist," he says. "The best analogy that I can use is... just think of us as a hospital with a number of beds in it. There’s always more people trying to get in the hospital than there are beds. And that’s the same situation for us."
The charity added autism support dogs to its guide dog services in 2008; as Thornton describes it, "it took off."
"We had over 80 families apply within a three-month period," he says. "And we got swamped. Obviously, we couldn't produce that many dogs in that period of time."
In response, the organization shut down its application process and started working on pairing dogs with the folks who had put their names forward.
But training doesn't happen overnight. Thornton says it takes two years to train an instructor and another 22 months to breed, raise and train a dog.
The cost? $35,000 per pooch (and yes, they're provided free of charge to the recipient.)
That's why donations are so important, adds Thornton.
Looking ahead, he says the non-profit will be training two new instructors at the start of next year.
Twenty-five autism support dogs have been trained since 2014; with the additional staff, he's hoping close to 75 more dogs will go through the program in the next five years.
"The success rate with all of our teams is phenomenal. And the difference these dogs make, not just for the child, but for the family as a whole, is unbelievable."