How the laid-back Labrador is having a calming effect on the high-energy youngster with autism.

For our autism partnerships, life is inevitably divided into before and after the arrival of their canine hero.

For the Nutton family from Barnsley in South Yorkshire that contrast is particularly life changing.

Mum Gemma describes her five-year-old son Stanley as: “Like 5,000 Duracell batteries on all the time. He’s at energy level 1million!” To stress the point, she adds: “If there was a cliff, he’d run off it.”

Stanley, like many youngsters with autism, has absolutely no sense of danger and used to terrify his family by bolting and running onto the road. He used to wear an ‘adventure belt’ around his waist which was attached to his mum’s waist or use a special needs buggy to keep him safe.

But since the family welcomed Dawnay the laid-back Labrador into their home, trips outside the home are no longer fraught with danger.

One of the main reasons that Support Dogs trains autism assistance dogs is to keep the child safe. The child holds onto a handle on their dog’s harness and the animal is trained to ‘brace’ when the child tries to run into the road.

“Stanley is a really bad bolter, he is terrible near roads and his concentration is not very good,” explains Gemma.

“When we started training with Dawnay we discussed if he had the capacity to hold on to her handle. Now he holds onto it even when he’s not supposed to and will stop at the kerb with Dawnay. He will even say: ‘Kerb.’

“Whereas before he used to run off all the time. When he’s with her he manages to concentrate, hold the handle and stop by the roadside. When he is attached to Dawnay she is brilliant with her brace, and we know he is safe.”

When Stanley was born it was obvious very early on that there was something different about him with dad Alan spotting a number of red flags, although Gemma was dismissive of this until he was diagnosed at the age of two.

Stanley didn’t walk until he was two and is still very unbalanced.  He gets distracted easily and doesn’t really speak beyond the odd word or phrase, although he likes to shout and scream when he goes into shops and cafes.

Gemma and Alan started Googling to see what help was on offer and found Support Dogs. “Everything seemed a bit glum,” says Gemma.

“When our little boy was diagnosed with autism, it was like a grieving process. We had to accept that his future could look different to the typical life you have mapped out in your head when you have a child; we had to jump into his world and see everything differently.”

 Their application to Support Dogs was successful, and eventually Stanley was matched with the beautiful pale-yellow Lab, who has proceeded to keep him safe, calm him down – and just as importantly, make him laugh.

“Dawnay is really clever, she knows when to not bother him, and when to bother him.  She starts licking his face when he gets upset and he forgets that he is upset and wags her tail when she picks him up from school,” says Gemma. “Stanley is completely comfortable with her now.  He will feed her and throw her a ball, which is a big thing for him to do because he stims (wafts his arms around).

“The other month he got Covid and he was stuck in the house, and at first it was horrible with no routine. But then he spent the day throwing the ball for Dawnay in the garden laughing and being really chilled.”

It’s still early days in their relationship and some activities still remain out of reach – for example Stanley was taken to a special educational needs screening at the cinema, but struggled to cope with the noise.  His energy levels make life sometimes exhausting for his parents.

But in so many other ways Dawnay’s influence is having a positive effect and is expanding the family’s life. Days out on the coast and the Yorkshire Wildlife Park’s light festival re now possible.

After Dawnay had been with them for only two weeks, the Nuttons went on their family holiday to Mablethorpe, as Stanley loves the beach. “We went into the night-time entertainment, which we hadn’t done before but his older sister really wanted to go,” says Gemma. Stanley went in and ran around the dance floor and Dawnay did a settle – she was brilliant!”

Dawnay also has a close bond with Stanley’s elder sister, Eva, aged eight, who has autism, but is high functioning, and has anxiety. “Dawnay is like a massive blanket; she goes and sits next to her and licks her face and turns from being upset and anxious to laughter,” adds Gemma. “She is great at picking up emotions. She is just the right amount of everything.”

Another massive bonus of having Dawnay is that when Stanley goes to shops and cafes with his mum and starts shouting and making a noise, the dog’s physical presence makes a potentially awkward situation easier.

People often stare at him because it’s not always obvious that he is autistic – people just see a naughty child throwing chicken nuggets across the room.

In a Facebook post from February Gemma said: "Normally I get rather anxious with things like this (an after-school treat to McDonalds) on my own just because I hate the stares we can get when Stanley’s making his noise.

“However, one of the big things for me personally with Dawnay is that by having her there, people seem to understand more and don’t stare - unless they are staring at how gorgeous Dawnay is of course!"

Gemma says of Support Dogs: “When we go out with Dawnay in her jacket people stop and ask questions. It makes it a positive experience and it makes you not feel invisible. Support Dogs has been brilliant, and it’s so nice to be part of something that is so special.”

Stanley and Dawnay are pictured above right with Support Dogs' senior instructor Tracey Moore.

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