Nine-year-old Kurtis and his autism assistance dog Kelly share more than just an initial – since May last year the pair have been sharing an increasingly happy and altogether less stressful life together.

Like many autistic youngsters, Kurtis Hickins doesn’t say a great deal. The young boy from Mexborough in South Yorkshire tends to stick to the occasional word or simple request or repeats phrases from films he likes.

So, when mum Linda heard her son, who was upset about something, say loudly: ‘Need Kelly,’ she knew it was significant.  Kurtis and Kelly had only been training together for three months but the bond that had developed between boy and dog was strong, and already Kelly was providing the calming, reassuring presence that Kurtis needs so badly.

“When Kurtis has a meltdown in the house we sit him on the settee, then get Kelly to rest on him and he almost instantly snaps out of it,” explains Linda. “She helps him calm down so that he feels safe, secure and happy. And when Kurtis has calmed down, he thanks Kelly for making him feels better, and says: ‘Beautiful.’”

Before the yellow Labrador became a valuable part of the Hickin family, Linda, partner Craig, Kurtis and daughter Polly Jean, now seven, struggled to enjoy the usual activities.

“He had good and bad days and normal life was restricted; there was no consistency, so it was hard to plan anything,” says Linda.

“Kurtis is all or nothing – either hyper, bouncing around or jumping, or like a snail. Leaving the house to anything as a family could be difficult and unpredictable.”

Kurtis was also a regular bolter - a term commonly used by families with autism when a child with autism suddenly runs off from a parent or care giver with no warning - once running straight across the road when he came out of school. While out shopping, just seeing escalators and broccoli – both things he likes – could set him off.  He would drop to the floor in the middle of a shop and have meltdowns if anything, however small, went wrong. off. Going out to eat in a restaurant as a family was stressful and often resulted in a rapid exit.

Kurtis was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, with elements of dyspraxia and ADHD. His parents at first thought he was just lazy and a bit quirky but although he started to talk, he then regressed.

After starting at mainstream nursery and reception, Kurtis was switched to a special school nearby, where he gets one-to-one attention and is making good progress.

His parents were unaware of autism assistance dogs and were investigating the possibility of a therapy dog for their son when they happened upon Support Dogs.  “The more I learnt about what autism assistance dogs could do for a child, I just knew it was for us,” says Linda.

Although they were accepted onto the autism programme, because of the Covid lock down their training programme was delayed, and the Hickins had to wait three years before their son was successfully matched with Kelly.

Autism assistance dog Kelly had been with Support Dogs since she was just eight weeks’ old puppy and was a shining star since her arrival, progressing brilliantly through her two-year training programme. During her time at the centre the training team described her as a lovely, gentle dog, and absolutely perfect to work with a child with autism – giddy and fun-loving at times but calm when she needed to be.

It was those qualities, and an ability to remain unfazed by any of Kurtis’s behaviour that enabled her to be his ideal partner. Very quickly Kurtis became a calmer, happier child, having fewer meltdowns, and the whole family bonded with her in different ways. Although Kelly sleeps downstairs, she and Kurtis cuddle up in bed before he goes to sleep, and in the morning when she hears the house stirring, she’s back up with a teddy bear for Kurtis to wake him up.

Since Kelly arrived, the Hickins have been able to go on a caravan holiday and enjoy the seaside, they can go for a meal, for walks, or impromptu visits to a pub beer garden – all the things that most families take for granted.

“I love seeing the pair of them running together, and I love walking around with them, and seeing how everyone smiles at them. Kelly loves the interaction with people, as she gets lots of attention,” says Linda.

“People are so much more understanding when they see Kurtis with Kelly in her Support Dogs’ jacket. She makes an absolute difference and is such a reassuring presence. If he gets overwhelmed, he puts his head of Kelly’s back and pats her. We put her jacket on, attach Kurtis to her harness and it’s ‘let’s go!’”

Kurtis and Kelly qualified as a partnership a year ago after Kelly passed all her assessments. “Kelly had to do some task work with Kurtis and me, and it went amazingly well - they are so natural together,” says Linda. 

“Kelly then went on a free run where she did amazing sits, stands, waits and call backs – she was even tempted by a squirrel but handled that temptation really well. We’re so proud of Kelly and the partnership - they’ve come on so well in such a short time.”

Life is now looking a lot less stressful for the Hickin family, and for Kurtis in particular, thanks to this very special dog.

A year on from qualifying, Linda says the days of meltdowns and bolting are a distant memory, thanks to Kelly’s calming influence. Kurtis is becoming more verbal and is like a different child.

“We’re 100 per cent happy with Kelly and with Support Dogs,” says Linda. “I just wish we could have had her sooner. These dogs are like gold dust and as a family we are privileged to have one. She has stolen our hearts!”