Wonder dog Azerley is giving Cohen confidence Seven-year-old Cohen has a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum condition, global developmental delay, hearing impairment and complex epilepsy as well as other health issues. Autism assistance dog Azerley is now working with Cohen. Mum, Sarah, talks about the impact this has had:"Cohen started to regress in his speech and eye contact at around 18 months. It was heart breaking for us to see our once happy, carefree little boy become very anxious and non verbal. He totally shut down into his own world. He would struggle to focus on anything and didn't even respond to his name. He began to have frequent 'meltdowns' and at the age of 5 he began to bite his hand in frustration. Before Azerley joined our family, life was very difficult for us all but especially for Cohen. Cohen really struggled to go out anywhere, the noises and people caused him great anxiety. We depended on his special-needs pushchair to keep him safe because he has no sense of danger. He would either 'bolt' running straight onto the road in front of traffic or fall to the floor. Cohen is extremely sensitive to noises he is unable to filter sounds so every noise is the same volume, whether it be the sound of a siren or the buzzing of a lightbulb. He puts his fingers in his ears and will cry. For our older son Joshua and it became very difficult as he longed for us to have 'normal ' family outings such as a visit to the cinema or to go bowling. We found ourselves becoming extremely isolated and unable to go out as a family. What were your expectations when you started the programme? I had read how autism assistance dogs had helped families in various ways and just as each child is unique so is each partnership, so I did not know what to expect. Cohen struggled to focus on anything and did not show any interest in animals so we had very little expectation regarding Cohen interacting with a dog. What was the initial impact after Azerley first qualified? On the first day Azerley arrived Cohen became instantly calmer, his anxiety levels reduced so dramatically that he stopped biting his hand something he had done for a over a year when he became frustrated. Since that day Cohen has never bitten his hand once! The first few attachment walks with Azerley were eventful as Cohen had to learn how to walk sensibly. This had a huge impact on me as I realised we needed Azerley not only to keep Cohen safe but also to teach him behaviour that is socially acceptable. Azerley is the key to helping Cohen integrate and to build essential life skills. We noticed that Cohen became much more involved and engaged in the world around him. No longer in his own 'little world' Cohen started to make eye contact with us and to interact with his surroundings. How has Cohen and Azerley's partnership progressed? What experiences have you had this year? This first year with Azerley has exceeded any expectations we had. Cohen was mostly non-verbal and initially we taught Azerley a few signs so Cohen could communicate with him but incredibly Cohen started to use words and phrases. Since then Cohen's language has improved so much he can now sing! We are now able to go out as a family. We have been to the cinema and visited museums Cohen even built his first ever sand castle on the beach! He is showing more interest in his peers and he has even started to initiate play with his big brother Joshua, which is fantastic! What is the best thing about as Azerley? I was looking back on the photos of the many amazing "firsts" Cohen has accomplished with Azerley and I suddenly realised I'm not grieving anymore for the son he was. Cohen is overcoming so many boundaries to his learning, his sensory issues and to understanding the world around him. Cohen now has the confidence at least to try most things, to speak, to sing, to walk bare foot on the sand! While celebrating all these successes, something unknowingly has happened to me, my heart no longer aches. I now know that Cohen will fulfil his true potential, whatever that may be."