Sean Forsyth quietly sits and plays video games before the first day of school. The nine-year-old is not used to being up at the early time of 6:45am.
"It's too early!" Sean complains. "Why can't school start this afternoon?"
Sean begins fourth grade this year at Eden Hall Upper Elementary in the Pine Richland School District, just north of Pittsburgh, PA. He's nervous, but he won't be alone. Sophia, a three-year-old English Labrador, will be right by his side as he begins his journey from elementary school to the much bigger upper elementary building.
Sean was diagnosed in kindergarten with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Unable to control his extreme anxiety and hours-long meltdowns, his parents turned to Jim and Susan Wagner of Perfect Fit Canines to find an autism service dog who could help their son. The connection between Sean and Sophia was instant, and after months of intensive training, Sophia came home in September of 2011, and began attending school in August 2012 after a year-long battle with Pine Richland to let the dog in.
The decision to have Sophia in school is entirely Sean's call.
"The reason I want Sophia in school with me is because she makes me feel better," he explains. "When I get upset she calms me down. When I get scared she gives me kisses. And when she's with me I don't have to miss her all day while I'm gone at school."
Indeed Sophia has done an excellent job in calming Sean. He has not experienced an autism meltdown longer than a few minutes since she came to the Forsyth home in 2011. She is also tethered to a special bracelet attached to Sean's wrist in public to prevent him from wandering, as children with autism are sometimes prone to do without telling anyone.
While last school year was a tension-filled transition for both the Forsyth family and Pine Richland School District, Sean and Sophia did very well with little incident. Staff at Eden Hall prepared months in advance for the pair to enter the building, and the transition is expected to go very smoothly, with faculty and staff making them feel as welcome as possible.
As the bus pulls up to take Sean to school, he obliges Mom for pictures, picks up Sophia's leash, and the two happily walk outside and board. All involved are hoping for a great school year for this special little boy and his autism service dog.