How autism assistance dog Willow is making the world less frightening place for young boy Lawson.

Hospital appointments were always a nightmare for Lawson Hall, an eight-year-old boy with severe autism, and his mum.

During his annual assessment with his paediatrician the youngster would never sit still, hiding under the chair and clambering around the room while mum Nina struggled to keep him under control.

Since the arrival of Willow, the beautiful yellow Labrador who became Lawson’s Support Dogs’ autism assistance dog last year, things have been very different.

“Hospital appointments were always a struggle; a real nightmare, but with Willow by his side Lawson just sits there in his chair, counting out her kibble, and staying still,” says Nina. “Lawson has never been so calm. The paediatrician was fascinated by Willow and took lots of notes. She was really impressed!”

That one incident is just one example of the difference that Willow has made to the lives of Lawson, his mum and 12-year-old sister Matilda, who also has autism and learning difficulties.

Lawson’s autism was apparent from a very young age and he was diagnosed after his two-year health check revealed that his speech and walking was delayed.

“When he was diagnosed it was a complete shock, although we knew something was not right. At that time, I was a paediatric nurse, but had no real experience of autism,” says Nina, now a GP practice nurse in Sutton Coldfield, near the family’s home in Tamworth. “In a way it was a relief as it meant we could get some support for him.”

Lawson’s autism was severe enough for him to attend a special school, and he still sees a speech therapist, as although he is verbal, he chooses who he speaks to.

But getting him to school was a horror show. “If we drove and I parked in a different place he would have a meltdown; if we walked, he would run off and there have been times when I’ve fallen over trying to stop him running into the road as he has absolutely no road sense,” she adds.

Lawson is a big animal lover so when Nina found out about Support Dogs from an internet search in 2017, she applied to the autism assistance dog programme.

Her son was introduced to several potential match dogs, but it wasn’t until Willow came to his house, started following him around and followed him up the stairs that senior Support Dogs’ instructor Tracey Moore declared: ‘That’s a match!’

Lawson and Willow had clicked, and first Nina and Willow and then Lawson and Willow successfully passed their training, graduating earlier this year.

Now Willow walks to school with Lawson without any problems or meltdowns, easing the stress on his mum.

“Once we got Willow we straightaway noticed what a complete difference she made,” says Nina. “If Lawson walks fast, she will keep pace with him. She goes into school with him, and he doesn’t cry or hang back anymore; now he’s the first one in the cloakroom. He says goodbye to her, and that’s that.”

 As well as keeping Lawson safe, Willow has a hugely calming influence on the youngster. She is there when he throws himself to the floor and lies down beside him to calm him down. Adds Nina: “She just seems to know when he is not right and is there to help him. When they are out and about, he leans into her for reassurance, and she leans back into him – it’s quite sweet.”

Although Willow is officially Lawson’s assistance dog, he is also the family pet. Matilda will curl up with him in his dog basket for comfort when she is stressed, and when the children have gone to bed it’s Nina’s turn for a canine cuddle on the sofa. “Willow’s a big help to all of us,” she says.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, inevitably things were not easy for Lawson, stuck in the house, living with a strange new routine, and he stopped eating and lost weight. But since it eased life is getting easier again, and Nina says that without Willow life would have been so much worse.

Despite being a hard-working professional pooch, Willow has her daft dog moments too. Take her jacket off and she’s a normal, fun-loving, ball-chasing crazy dog.

But primarily she’s a life-transforming autism assistance dog, making the world a less frightening place for a young boy who needs a best friend.

“Nothing’s perfect and Lawson’s still got autism,” says Nina. “Getting Willow was like winning the Lottery. She is amazing; she is golden!  She makes a massive difference to me, my daughter, and of course Lawson.  When he has Willow by his side, he can cope with being in the outside world.”

Find out more About Support Dogs’ autism assistance programme: