Parents of boy with severe autism believe service dog can help him

2017-06-22 | The Free Lance-Star

June 22--Cole won't go to any of his safety zones anymore.

The safety zones were places where the 6-year-old, who has severe autism, would sit or play without throwing himself to the ground and banging his head.

There used to be the trampoline in the basement and the one in the backyard. There was his bed, but only if the tent surrounding it was zipped up, and the armchair in the living room, but only if someone sat in it with him and if a scarf was tied loosely around his middle so he felt secure.

"He used to love the swing, the couch and his big wheel tricycle, but he took those away from us, too," Cole's mother, Kimberly Bissett, said.

Cole is nonverbal, so the family doesn't know why he has decided his safety zones aren't safe anymore.

A parent or caretaker has to be with Cole at all times or he will hurt himself.

The Bissetts are hoping the calming presence of a service dog will help. This spring, they were approved to receive an autism service dog for their son from a company that trains service dogs and raised $25,000--their half of the dog's cost. The wait could be four to six months or longer but they believe it will be worth it.

"We will do anything, everything we can for my son," Bissett said.

Cole was diagnosed with autism at 15 months old by developmental pediatricians at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, but Bissett said she knew something was wrong from the time he was 6 months old.

"I knew something wasn't right," she said. "Mother's instinct, gut reaction."

Cole wasn't meeting developmental milestones and it was difficult to get him to smile or laugh. He wasn't a happy baby. He wouldn't react to noises that should have startled him. One day when Cole was still a baby, Bissett walked in to say hello to her son after a day of work and he turned away from her.

"He physically looked away," she said. "Babies are normally all about their parents. And he looked away from me."

Today, doctors tell the Bissetts that Cole has the mental age of a toddler between 15 months and 2 years old. He does not talk or use sign language and does not walk without help.

"Every daily need, he needs assistance with," Bissett said. "Everything you can imagine."

Shannon O'Grady, Cole's private therapist who works with him daily in applied behavior analysis--one of the most widely-accepted therapies for children with autism spectrum disorder--said Cole's world can be a frightening place.

"Imagine not being able to tell anyone what you wanted, ever," she said.

The floor of the Bissett home in Spotsylvania County is covered in many places with foam mats to protect the boy from his violent falls. In the autism classroom at Lee Hill Elementary School, which he attends for a shortened day, he wears a helmet and safety harness.

When something triggers his self-destructive behavior, it is difficult to restrain him, Bissett said.

"He weighs 60 pounds and he will fight you to the floor to bang his head," she said. "I'll be pouring sweat trying to fight him from falling."

The Bissetts believe a service dog can help Cole walk, support him if he falls, redirect his self-harming behavior and be a reliable physical presence for him.

"He's a child who needs touch," Kimberly Bissett said. "Just the pressure of someone sitting with him, being with him. A dog will constantly be in his presence. That's the one thing we're hoping."

"We're two parents with two kids and one child constantly needs a parent with them," she continued. "A third hand would be unbelievable. I know a dog is not a person, but it can certainly be there for him."

She has already seen her son come out of his bubble to interact with dogs.

"We've seen Cole amazingly stop and throw a ball for a dog," she said. "I was shocked. It's not typical behavior for my son to pay attention to any one thing."

Both Bissett and her husband, Rod, both work full-time at Dahlgren. Her parents moved back to the county from Ladysmith a few years ago so they could help out with Cole. Her sister and brother-in-law also live across the street and lend a hand when they can.

"I'm so very fortunate that I have family that lives near me," she said. "Without them, it would be extremely difficult. I do not know how parents do this without support."

The Bissetts have a team of four personal-care assistants who rotate throughout the week to aid Cole with his daily routine. Three private therapists--O'Grady as well as a speech therapist and a physical therapist--come to their house after school to work with him.

Bissett believes the severity of Cole's autism has caused several therapy agencies to drop them as clients. The agency O'Grady is from is the fifth they've worked with.

She noticed a regression in Cole's behavior when they changed agencies the first time. He was toilet trained, but stopped using the bathroom on his own.

The falling behavior started three years ago, she said. Cole came down with a double ear infection and the falls started after that and have continued to get worse. But spine scans, brain scans and blood tests show that there is no medical issue causing them.

Bissett worries every day about what will happen if the self-harming behaviors don't improve as Cole gets older and bigger.

"[A service dog] is one of our last hopes," she said. "But hope is still there."

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