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A boy with autism and his dog find a world in common

It's early July, and Michael wants nothing to do with the dog. The feeling, if you can judge a new puppy's intent, is not mutual.

Michael is a 5-year-old child, diagnosed within the wide autism syndrome label, who doesn't want to be touched, much less touch the animal in front of him.

Mercury is a 10-week-old black Labrador who wants nothing more than to be touched and played with.

If the goal is to make Mercury responsive to Michael's needs, you first have to get them to acknowledge each other.

And make no mistake, that's the goal. Because if therapists and dog trainers can figure out a way to get Mercury to sense what Michael is doing or about to do, and then disrupt it or comfort him through it, there is fresh reason to think autistic children can be armed with a new and highly effective — did we mention wet-nosed? — weapon against a world that doesn't understand them.

But there is a problem here. Autistic children want little or no eye contact with others. Dogs crave it. Autistic children are often non-responsive to verbal cues and praise. Dogs wait for the former and live for the latter. How to get them to speak each other's language is the issue.

The breakthrough that is to come in the months ahead for Michael and Mercury will not be a miracle. It will take weeks of coaxing and more than a little invention. But it will come, when someone gets the bright idea to open a can of shaving cream.

The idea of using animals to help human beings is not new. The idea of using horses to help autistic children with movement and stimulation issues has been around for a while.

But to use dogs as assistance animals for children with autism is so complicated that what is happening with Michael and Mercury is, though with some precedent, sort of being made up as it goes along.

This is how it works: Two willing and eager parents, Chris and Kim Farthing, explain Michael's behavior and their needs regarding that behavior to experienced dog trainer Jo Brosius. Brosius, in turn, explains what she can do with Mercury to Jaci Durham and Peggy Wittman, an occupational therapy master's candidate and her academic adviser, who then discuss what Michael might accept — be it closeness, distraction, companionship — from the dog.

It's a constant communication between each team member about what is working and what isn't. It's invention at every level, sometimes with as simple a goal as to get Michael to let Mercury sit next to him without incident.

"A lot of people think I'm stretching for a miracle, like I'm trying to make him normal," Kim Farthing says.

She shakes her head no.

Michael, like many children with autism, tends to wander away from home and familiar boundaries. If Mercury can stop that, if he can even just go with Michael when he goes, that will be enough.

"I just want Michael safe."

A good friend had seen a story about autism assistance dogs on a network magazine show in early 2008.

The Farthings had a lot to think about when inviting a new permanent "family member" into their home. They have two other children — Creed, Michael's twin brother, and Jordan, his 8-year-old sister.

Kim had to check with Boyle County School District officials to be certain that if the dog was trained and then "service-certified," he would be allowed in Michael's classroom. They agreed the dog would be welcome.

Kim did some further research and, with more than a few fits and starts and the abundant blessing of generous friends who helped pay numerous expenses, they found what they were looking for.

Sooner than expected, in mid-summer, a shiny black Labrador, named after the first planet from the sun, arrived in Kentucky.

Michael had been diagnosed with autism just after he and Creed, who is a typical child, turned 2. Michael read at 4, can speak but doesn't much like to, does not respond when being urgently searched for, gets fixated on shapes and numbers and lights, tends to negotiate for what he wants and needs, is in a constant state of distraction, and loves video games and, oh yeah, the solar system.

He tends to "melt down" when overstimulated, flaying his arms defensively or biting his hand in a gesture of abject retreat. His immune system, like that of many children with autism, is shot. He tends to wander away. He has no awareness of social norms or cues. However, he attends Perryville Elementary School, where he has been placed in a typical classroom, has a full-time aide and a few hours of special education training.

Mercury is a puppy, chosen by breed and disposition to be intensely loyal, non-aggressive and easily trained. He is a treat hound, willing to do anything for a puppy cookie and/or a tummy rub. He's a fast learner who likes playing in water.

When introduced to each other for the first time in July, Michael bit his own hand repeatedly and retreated to the hands of his mother. Mercury paid attention to anyone who paid attention to him.

Trainer Brosius watched all this carefully. She had worked with disabled children with a good deal of success before, but this was something new. What, she wondered, would interest Michael enough to make him work? What would get his attention?

"I could make the dog do anything. I was sure of that. But Michael? That was another story."

The duo spent session after session in each other's company without Michael acknowledging the dog's presence. He could not bear the feel of the dog's fur on his skin.

Brosius worried that the puzzle that was Michael wasn't going to give up its secrets.

"I just had to step into Michael's world and draw him back into mine."

In early fall, Brosius had a million ideas. Some worked. Michael likes bubbles, so they had the dog and the boy chase bubbles together. Michael likes things that blink and spin, so they put LED lights on Mercury's collar.

When they did, Michael touched the dog's leash.

On that day, his father threw him high in the air to show his son how happy everyone was with Michael's simple concession. As he did, Michael kept repeating over and over to his father, "Touch clouds. Touch clouds. Touch clouds."

Jaci Durham was brought in because, quite frankly, it was October and Michael still wasn't touching the dog, and Brosius needed help.

A graduate student in occupational therapy at Eastern Kentucky University, Durham is the daughter of dog breeders. This was something she knew she was born to do.

On her first day with the crew at Brosius' home in Berea, the novice occupational therapist brought a piece of silk to lay over Mercury, to be, as she told Michael, his "Superdog" cape. She wanted to somehow entice Michael to touch first the silk, then to remove the silk and see if he'd touch the dog.

Michael was not buying it.

She had another thought. She got out a can of Barbasol shaving foam and slathered a flat tray with the creamy concoction. Together, she and Michael drew shapes of the planets and numbers in the foam. They put their handprints in the foam. Brosius got Mercury to put his paw in the tray and leave his print. Then, ever so slyly, Durham foamed up the black dog and asked Michael to draw the planets on the docile dog.

To everyone's astonishment, his finger reached out and made the shape, touching the dog without resistance.

"My God," thought a shocked Durham, "this stuff they've been teaching me actually works."

The next time they were together, Durham asked Michael to draw Jupiter on the dog. This time she had no foam to fool him with.

Michael never balked. There, on the black dog's perfectly shiny fur, a faint shape of a planet.

Durham found ways to motivate Michael. Her greatest bargaining tool: "Hippie shakes," whereby they both sit on the floor and Durham grabs his outstretched legs and shakes them wildly. It rewards him, focuses him, even sort of helps to organize his thoughts, says Durham. Most of all, it's leverage. Michael is a negotiator; he will do most anything for "hippie shakes."

A session with Durham and Brosius can last 90 minutes or 15, and it's only twice a week. The training time can be severely limited by Michael's ability to tolerate sensory input. And problems — puzzles really — can come at every turn.

They discovered that Mercury responded a lot better when spoken to in "an authoritative voice." What the heck is authoritative to a 5-year-old autistic kid?

The crew put their heads together. Simple. Kim told Brosius that Michael watched SpongeBob SquarePants and that he could imitate the villain's voice pretty well.

So they told Michael to do "Plankton voice" when commanding Mercury.

Worked like a charm.

The evidence is pretty strong, says Wittman, that kids with disabilities are discriminated against.

"Dogs," she says, "create commonality. Other kids are likely to come up to a kid in a wheelchair if there's a dog attached. They bridge a gap of differentness."

But autistic children are not like other children with physical disabilities. The social gap cannot be bridged by a dog. The dog is there to, perhaps, make the child seem less frightening to other children, but he is not a panacea for the child's social differentness.

"It's hard for us to define 'relationships' for these kids," Wittman says. "Maybe it's why an animal works for them. We define relationships as some kind of reciprocity. Animals might not come with those expectations."

Do the Farthings want Mercury to be Michael's friend?

"I'm not sure he would entirely understand that," says Kim. "I want Mercury to be his guardian."

"I think dogs are unconditionally loving and receptive in a way that humans aren't," says Durham. "My parents bought my dog, Sugar, when I was going through my divorce and I was two hours away from anyone who loved me. Dogs have a keen intuition about our emotions. They're a buffer. Mercury can be Michael's buffer."

November 8 is the first night that Mercury sleeps over at the Farthings'.

Everyone is treating it like a normal Sunday afternoon session, only Mercury just won't be going home when Durham and stand-in trainer Amy Hughes do.

Kaywood, the 7-year-old basset hound alpha dog of the house, is wondering what is up. Mercury, at 5 months old, moves at the speed of light, sniffing every baseboard, every table leg, everything. He's called upstairs for therapy.

Michael, not surprisingly, is overwhelmed and he retreats, as is his custom, into his rather large closet, which soon enough contains all of his nine inflatable planets, a pile of his favorite books, a four-foot-long fish pillow, Durham, Hughes and Mercury.

"Get off me," Michael says to Mercury.

Hughes feeds Mercury treats to keep him lying down.

"Can you read Mercury a book?" Durham asks Michael.

"No."

"He likes to learn," says Hughes.

"Hippie shake?" asks Michael.

"You have to do your work before we do hippie shake," says Durham.

He begins reading Blue Hat, Green Hat.

"Michael, let me tell you a secret. Mercury gets cold easily. Can you move closer to him?"

"No."

The promise of three hippie shakes for Michael and the delivery of five treats to Mercury get the two of them to agree to be in the closet together, touching, while Michael reads.

The negotiation has taken more time than the reading. The dog has paid attention to Hughes, mostly, as she is the one handing out treats. Still, Michael has not once objected to Mercury being in the closet with him. He has moved easily into Mercury's space and only reacted when Mercury has moved, unexpectedly, into his.

Still, no dogs were asked to leave the closet. No therapists either.

When Mercury stays behind to spend his first night in Michael's room, Michael is oblivious to the change in routine. Same could be said for the dog.

The first morning Mercury wakes up at the Farthings, Michael is taught how to feed him. This is absolutely crucial. The dog must know whom he depends upon for food.

Michael is 6 now. He needs reminding, but he is capable.

Kim and Chris Farthing are beginning to think this could work.

By December, the dog has learned the command "circle Michael." It's a command Kim can give to get Mercury to run circles around her wandering child.

Or, a permutation of the command into "circle me" can be a playful directive from Michael.

This piece of progress happened by chance one day in late November when Mercury began to chase his own tail about the same time that Michael began to have a meltdown. The dog's spinning stopped Michael cold. He calmed down to watch the dog, mesmerized.

Kim reported this to Brosius and, with careful redirection of everyone's efforts, Mercury has learned to sense Michael's meltdowns and begins to chase his tail on his own when the child becomes flustered, agitated, uncommunicative and flailing. The tail-chasing ends the meltdown before it starts. Good dog.

Michael still has times when he doesn't want Mercury near him. He still runs away from him. But these days, more often than not, Mercury will follow. Michael will speed up. Mercury will speed up, then they will start flying around the kitchen, Mercury sliding rear-first into the lower cabinets, and everyone is friends again.

Michael and his twin brother sleep in the same double bed with Mercury between them. Since the dog has joined them, Michael gets out of bed much less often to wander the house at night. When Michael and Creed "camp out" in the living room, Michael has even made sure Mercury is invited to the sleepover as well.

Mercury also has been taught by Brosius to play "hide and seek" with Michael, a precursor to teaching him to scent and track should that ever become necessary.

So far, the dog has not failed to find Michael in the bed, under the bed or in the closet.

The Farthings know there is a long way to go. But they know how far they've come.

Brosius, who has not been paid for any of her services save for transportation, has now begun work with four other autistic children and their dogs.

She says she will stay with Michael and Mercury "as long as they need me. It's not done until they say it's done."

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