This article ran in this month's Portland Family Magazine.
Last summer, Portland resident Kellee Hernandez stepped into her backyard for just a moment while she listened to her six-year-old son, Luka, playing in the house. Suddenly, there was silence.
She bolted into the house — no Luka. After a frantic search, she found him across the street wearing only his underwear, looking for the neighborhood pool.
Having a young child with autism is a never-ending challenge, admits Hernandez. “He has no awareness of cars, and when he decides to go, he just goes,” she says. “I’m with him constantly, but as he gets older, I can’t always be there. That’s why getting Belle is going to be such a help.”
Belle is a 22-month-old golden retriever who has been specially trained to be Luka’s constant companion. The service dog will help calm Luka’s emotional anxieties and outbursts, help him develop social skills, and even be able to track him within a six-mile radius should he decide to go exploring.
In January, Kellee, her husband Ram, their younger son Tristan and Luka went to Colorado Springs to pick up Belle from Angel Service Dogs. For the last few months, they have been sending Belle shirts that Luka has worn, so that when they meet, the dog will recognize him immediately.
It promises to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
The impact of autism
Hernandez said that Luka’s development was typical from birth. He seemed normal, social and was putting words together. Suddenly, at 15 months, his development dramatically deteriorated — losing all language at age two, with his grandfather’s name the last to go.
“We were a young couple and suddenly, our lives had completely changed,” she said. “We couldn’t have friends over to the house, go to church together or go out for meals — he just couldn’t sit still that long. Or our family got separated a lot because Luka couldn’t handle it.”
For a time Luka had emotional outbursts that would be two-to-three-hour tantrums. Now those have subsided, but if he wants to leave or desires something, Hernandez says, his demands continue unabated until they are met.
Luka also doesn’t sleep through the night, but his younger brother will sleep with him to calm him. “For all intents and purposes, he is nonverbal, but communicates with us using his iPad, sign language, gestures and vocal approximations for words,” Hernandez said. “However, developmentally, cognitively and socially, Luka is three-plus years behind his peers.”
How Belle can help
The animals specially selected by Angel Service Dogs are first with puppy raisers for ten months, and go to the training facility in Colorado Springs. Then dogs are moved into different specialties. Behavior training is very extensive. Many of the trained animals are Allergy Alert dogs that help detect the odor of whatever a patient is allergic to, so they can help those who have serious or life-threatening allergies.
Angel Service Dogs is a nonprofit started four years ago by Sherry Mers, who needed a service dog for her daughter. Their mission is to coordinate the trainers and dogs to help families in need, such as Luka’s.
“As we were training dogs for children with allergies, we found that there were families with other medical needs,” Mers said. “We think Belle is going to help Luka in a wonderful way.”
“When Luka gets upset, he can’t control his emotions,” Hernandez explained. “He won’t take it out on others, but he will hit himself on the chin. We didn’t want to put him on medication to control that, but the dog will go to him every time she senses his emotions escalating. Belle will put her head on his lap, and work to calm him down.”
As mentioned earlier, Belle also is trained to track Luka, either in a house or outside.
“Plus, it will help Luka place his attention outside of himself,” Hernandez said. “So far, all the focus has been on Luka and his surroundings, which is classic autism. While he looks like any other kid in the park, other kids can sense there’s something different about him and they back away. In time, Belle can be a social bridge in that way, too.”
Belle will sleep with Luka, and go with him to school, dinner and church … everywhere.
The public shows its support and love
Getting a service dog isn’t cheap. To get Belle and bring the family out for a 10-day training session cost $20,000. So last December, a silent auction fundraiser was held at the Tilt gourmet burger restaurant on Swan Island in Portland. More than 130 people attended.
“We raised over $30,000 and $12,000 of that was from three donations alone,” Hernandez said. “The coolest part was raising $10,000 extra, which will go to another family to help them get a dog.”
Donations for the auction included a new deck, vacation home stays, U.S. Open and Blazer tickets and a jersey signed by LaMarcus Aldridge.
“The generosity we experienced … it just makes you stop,” Hernandez said. “We were in tears at one point. I was 25 years old when Luka was diagnosed and we felt so alone. It was just amazing to see the community rally around us.”
For more information about Luka, go to www.teamlukapants.com
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social impairments, cognitive impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. It can range from very mild to very severe and occur in all ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females. Some children with autism appear normal before age one or two, and then suddenly “regress” and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. – National Autism Association