Eve Warner Lloyd lives in the UK with her husband Adam and their two children – seven-year-old Baylie and Samuel, who is five-years-old. They moved to Great Malvern, a town made famous as a spa in Victorian times, just before Sam was born in 2010. At the time, Eve was a physics and math tutor and her husband was a tree surgeon and landscape architect. Her story is a familiar one when it comes to the impact autism had on their family, but also a miraculous one as it reveals how the arrival of a puppy turned their lives around. Eve tells her story:
Despite being a very unhappy baby and toddler, Sam’s mental and physical development had been normal. But everything changed when he reached the age of 18 months – looking back on family videos, we can almost pinpoint the exact day his development suddenly stopped.
He continued growing but that was about it. He became silent, unresponsive and behaved as though he had been numbed. Slowly it became obvious that every aspect of his mental and emotional development was going backwards and eventually he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum as well as having OCD and SPD (sensory processing disorder).
Sam started going to nursery at the age of 26 months.
By this stage he was mute and a totally solitary little boy who had no idea how to play, nor any desire to interact with other people.
He would spend his time walking the perimeter of any room, garden or anything with a fence or wall, ignoring everything in his way. He experienced what I later learned were night terrors every single night, and had to be resettled two or three times. He showed absolutely no developmental progress at nursery, remaining totally silent bar the times he cried. Eventually Sam was accepted onto the SALT (Speech & Language Therapy) program, which is a service offered by the mainstream education service.
People kept telling us to get a dog as it might prove a help to Sam.
I was skeptical but our dog Louie joined our family in August 2013 when Sam was 33 months. At first he barely acknowledged Louie’s presence and, when he did, it was to express annoyance that the dog was in his way. However, Louie had other ideas and followed Sam everywhere.
After about three months we started to notice a change in Sam's behavior.
He was far less prone to outbursts and whenever Louie was with him, his displays of temper calmed down more quickly. Sam began to make noises, just basic sounds at this stage, as well as responding positively to music; laughing and clapping in perfect time. However, whilst away from Louie when at nursery, he remained silent and uncommunicative, totally disinterested in anything anyone said or did. At the age of 4, we changed the nursery he was at and hoped to see an improvement as, by this time, Sam was playing, even though it had to be instigated by someone else.
At first the NHS pediatric unit said any changes were down to hormone surges and it was likely he would continue to have sporadic bursts of improvement with stagnant phases in between. However, our health visitor was the first to notice the real change in Sam.
She walked into our house and he beamed at her, went over to her, hugged her and kissed her hand. Then, amazingly, he pointed to the dog and said "Louie, dog. My dog".
The first proper words Sam had uttered in two years and 10 months.
A few days later Sam chose to play with his toy cars completely on his own. I set about getting lunch ready and after 10 minutes, went to fetch him. He was sitting on the floor with a pile of reading books, telling Louie stories, mostly gibberish, but some words corresponding to the pictures.
Because of the amazing effect of Louie on Sam, we decided to work more closely with dogs and also as a way of helping other families.
It’s hard enough trying to organize your life if you have an autistic child, so the added headache of training a very young puppy can prove far too hard. That’s where we come in. We take care of, and train puppies for the first three months of their lives before handing them over to their new family.
We're training our 11th puppy now but without a doubt, the pup who Sam has been closest to was a male black Labrador named Jet. He stayed with us for a longer period of training and Sam became very attached to him, training him to roll over on command as well as play hide and seek. Jet went on to a family whose father, Tom, was an armed forces veteran, trying to cope with debilitating PTSD. Jet's presence has helped the entire family - Tom now walks his children to and from school, supports them on school sports’ days and has given his wife, Helen, the opportunity to go back to work.
Coco was our tenth pup and she was a beautiful little chocolate female Labrador. Sam thought she was wonderful as nothing dampened her enthusiasm. Again, around him she was always completely calm, except when they were playing together, of course.
Coco went to live in Cardiff with a lovely family, Kelly and Keith and their three children. Their oldest daughter’s life was almost paralysed by OCD but with the arrival of Coco, for the first time in ten years, they have been able to go away on holiday, even walking barefoot on the beach. That would have been impossible only a few months before.
Six of our 11 puppies (all Labradors) have gone to new lives as support dogs or aid in disability dogs for children and young adults with Autism. One, a beautiful yellow female called Emma, went to live with a young girl called Lottie, who suffered from severe sleep apnoea and epilepsy. Sadly, Lottie passed away in January after developing pneumonia. Emma still lives with Lottie’s parents in Wales and is now helping them to come to terms with their loss.
Getting a diagnosis for Sam took a very long time - even getting someone to listen to us in the first place was hard.
It would have taken far longer had it not been for a lovely chap called Colin Esrich, from the Complex Communications Team. We also received tremendous support from the Brighter Futures Nursery in Malvern as well as Sam's mainstream school, St Joseph's Catholic Primary, and his truly outstanding teaching assistant, Mrs Coombes. But most of all, we have to thank Louie, for being Sam's best friend no matter what.
Life with Sam before Louie was exhausting, both emotionally and physically. His behavior and level of need meant he required constant attention and supervision, including overnight. It affected all of us but Baylie, my daughter, most of all as the attention and focus was always on Sam. To her credit, she is an amazingly patient big sister, who's now being "rewarded" for her help with Sam, by finally getting the playmate and dress-up partner she’s always wanted!
It’s very difficult to look twelve hours ahead, so knowing what the future for Sam will be is not certain.
We would love to see him complete all of his education within mainstream schools. We were advised he should have gone straight into a school for special needs, but Sam is now meeting every target given to him and in some cases, surpassing them. So that just goes to show you.
As long as he continues to be the happy, loving little boy prone to spontaneous giggles and singing, then we'll be content. I would like to see a future where autism is better understood - for too long they've been viewed as naughty, aggressive, disruptive and even "stupid" children. That is so far from the truth.
My advice to any parent is simple. Do not give up. Try to imagine the frustration your child is experiencing.
You'll sometimes feel as though you're paddling against the tide, especially in England for some reason, but make yourself heard. Just because you're "only a parent", doesn't mean you don't know when something isn't quite right with your child, and don’t imagine you're alone.
As with many children on the spectrum, Sam's autism was inherited. Sadly, my husband Adam went through life labelled as difficult, out of control, angry, obsessive, weird as well as many other labels before being diagnosed with Asperger’s. Sam's diagnosis helped us as a family and Adam as a grown man. He too finds being with the dogs calming, giving him a sense of purpose and the all-important gift of unconditional love.
As I write this, Sam has just given Louie a perfect rendition of "If you're happy and you know it..." He is amazing.