The youngster with autism and the yellow Labrador have been best friends since they day they were matched.

June 3 2019 is a date that Emma Gilman will always remember.

Her eight-old son JJ, who has autism, was due to be ‘matched’ with Berry, a very special dog that had the potential to transform his young life.

Emma and JJ had been on Support Dogs’ waiting list for an autism assistance dog since 2017.

Finally a dog had been identified that could work effectively with JJ, keep him safe, provide a calming presence, and ease his path into adolescence. 

Matching an autistic child with an autism assistance dog can take time as they don’t always click as a partnership. The way a child and dog respond to each other has to be right, but to Emma’s considerable relief, boy and dog hit it off straight away.

“Tracey the senior instructor brought Berry to meet JJ, and they started to play together,” says Emma, pictured below left, with JJ and Berry. “JJ and Berry just instantly had this amazing connection and Tracey said she was thrilled by that. I am not naturally a doggy person, but even I could tell there was something special.”

That was just the start of a deep and hugely rewarding relationship for JJ and the Berry the yellow Labrador who was to become the youngster’s closest companion. The pair qualified as an autism assistance partnership in February 2020.

Before Berry became part of the Gilman family, JJ’s life was a difficult one and the young boy displayed some very challenging behaviour.  Mum Emma and dad Kieran knew there was something wrong with their son from the age of just over a year old, when he didn’t start to walk or talk.

JJ was diagnosed with global development delay when he was two and a half, and shortly after with autism and ADHD. Although he is verbal, unlike many children with autism, JJ also has other health problems including a brain malformation and chronic pain, for which he has to take many painkilling drugs, and has lots of allergies.

Explains Emma: “Cognitively JJ is very, very bright but his ability to transfer his skills is almost zero. Nothing he learns can he put into practice in everyday life. Everything is black and white. He has shocking anxiety. Socially and emotionally he is about four. He has not made any progress and is unlikely to make any progress. He struggles to focus or sit still; he is always jigging about. But he’s amazing. When you think of all the things he has to deal with, I’m in awe.”

Since pre-school JJ has been granted one-to-one support. He finds it hard to make friends, although children at his current school are very tolerant, and the school is very understanding of his complex needs.

His parents were determined to provide as much help and support for their son as possible.  “I went online and tried to find out how to help my kid – I wanted to know what was out there,” says Emma. “That’s when I found Support Dogs, registered our interest, and was invited to an open day. After being accepted into the autism programme, and JJ was matched with Berry, I spent two weeks in Sheffield for the start of the training which was great fun. I went there to get a dog for my son and got a life-changing gift. Berry was brilliant and everything went absolutely to plan.”

So what does Berry do for JJ that makes such a difference to his life?

“She gives him confidence,” says Emma. “JJ would not leave the house – we had a torrid time with him and getting him to go to school was awful. Having Berry gives him something to focus on and so he doesn’t have to think about being frightened or anxious when leaving the house.  Berry walks to school with him to the gates and sometimes goes into assembly with him.

“The safety aspect is also very important. We walk to the kerb and Berry stops. Nine times out of ten JJ sits down at the kerb with her, gives her a cuddle then walks on!

“Sometimes take Berry with me when I go to the shops or take her for a walk. She is like two different dogs. When she’s with me she’s just a dog. When she’s out with me and JJ and has her jacket on, she is like a robot.”

“She is not there to put his washing in the washing machine or open doors,” adds Emma firmly. "She is there to love him and let him love her with no expectations.

“Sometimes JJ just wants to sit on the settee and she will lie with him, and they have a cuddle. He wants to be with her all the time. When JJ’s in bed Berry will follow me around the house like my little shadow but if JJ is in the house, she will be with him.

“He absolutely adores her. His job is to feed her – which gives him some responsibility, and he rarely has to be asked or cajoled. My elder son Morgan, aged 19, is a huge dog person and adores her too. I think he’s a little bit jealous that she’s JJ’s dog…

“JJ will tell you that he loves Berry best of everybody. “I love Berry - a million, gazillion trezillion times. I love mummy and daddy – one!”

During lockdown the ten-year-old regressed because he was frightened and didn’t want to go out, but without Berry it would have been so much worse.

Says Emma:” The last six months have been horrendous. JJ has found life particularly difficult, the uncertainty and sudden changes in routine are extremely difficult for those with autism. I can honestly say that I don't think we would have got through it without Berry. It has still been very difficult, but she has given JJ a reason to smile every day and someone to cuddle and love when life is just too much! 

The Gilmans are well aware that JJ will always have problems, but with Berry by his side he will be able to cope. And although JJ still has meltdowns, he has had fewer since Berry came along to calm him down

“She doesn’t suddenly make everything go away - he is still autistic – but she just makes it easier to deal with,” says Emma. “She gives JJ a focus and you can’t put a price on that.

“I can’t imagine what life would be like without Berry; she’s one of the family. It’s as if she has always been here, and I can’t believe what life was like before. She is one of the family. She has been the most life-changing gift that anyone has ever given us.

“We will never be able to repay Support Dogs for what they have done for us. Berry has transformed JJ’s life.”