Mother seeking trained dog to help protect autistic toddler

Monday, November 1, 2004

In August, a near-death experience for 2-year-old Nick McAdams prompted his parents to investigate options to help their autistic son.

"Apparently the door downstairs to the garage was left unlocked and the garage door was open," said Nick's mother, Michelle McAdams. "Nicholas wandered out onto Highway 25 and was found by a driver who had almost hit him. He'd been standing in the middle of the road. The man had been driving slowly while on his cell phone. Luckily it was this scenario, not an incident involving a tractor-trailer."

McAdams discovered 4 Paws for Ability, a not-for-profit agency whose mission is to enrich the lives of people with disabilities by training and placing service animals in their homes. The dog, trained in search and rescue, would also help to keep the boy out of dangerous situations and from engaging in self-abusive behavior.

Tracker and the Southeast Missourian Jr. have embarked on a fund raiser to get an autistic assistance dog for Nick, although details have not yet been set. About $125 has been donated so far. The cost of the dog is $9,800.

Lack of fear

Safety is a major issue for Nick. His lack of fear means he doesn't have the ability to discern danger or dangerous situations.

Self-abusive behavior is common, but that's where a dog can help. For instance, if Nick starts banging his head because he's frustrated, the dog would slip his head between Nick's and the object he's banging, providing a cushion.

More important, the dog provides a distraction.

"Autistic children respond better to animals," McAdams said. "They don't see them as having an agenda like a caregiver would, but instead they see them as a friend."

Jumping off things, an activity that makes Nick feel "grounded," can be a potential danger. "He understands where he is by the weight and pressure he exerts. That is the best way I can describe it," said McAdams.

A dog would be trained to distract him from this behavior and even know when a seizure, a typical autistic characteristic, is coming on.

An assistance dog could also make ordinary things like going to the grocery store a possibility. Normally, such a trip a would be out of the question for Nick. "He runs off or climbs out of the cart," McAdams said.

But a licensed therapy dog can accompany Nicholas at the store. "The dog would be tethered to Nicholas with a small loop on his belt," she said. "When the dog stops, he'd stop."

335-6611, extension 133

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