With Marky by his side, helping him to face the world, Thomas feels safe and secure.

For many youngsters with autism who struggle to make human connections, their autism assistance dog very quickly becomes their new Best Friend.

That happened to eight-year-old Thomas Fletcher and his assistance dog Marky. But it wasn’t until Thomas’s mother Kim was chatting to another mum at the school gates that she fully realised the transformation that his four-legged friend has made to her son.

“The other morning a mum who has seen Thomas before and after Marky came up to me and said she couldn’t believe how much Thomas has changed – and how Marky had changed his life,” says Kim.

“This is from someone who doesn’t know us very well, yet she had noticed the change too. And it’s true; Marky has completely changed Thomas’s life. He is that friend he needed who is always there for him.”

Thomas who lives with mum Kim, dad Paul and younger brother William in Sheffield, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

Thomas finds engaging with other people incredibly difficult. He has no sense of danger and without Marky by his side would run into the road. He has regular meltdowns when he throws himself to the floor, is unable to move, and becomes physically violent, screaming and throwing punches. The school run was running a gauntlet for his parents. On the rare occasion when they could get him out of the house, Thomas would go in his buggy or his wheelchair often with a blanket over himself and his head.

Academically Thomas is incredibly bright. He taught himself to read and can do maths beyond his years. He attends a mainstream school (with one-to-one support) but his ability to make connections and socialise is non-existent and his behaviour is challenging.

Says Kim: “Before we got Marky, Thomas was very unhappy and frustrated, and really emotionally fragile. He had high levels of anxiety and was starting to bang his head on hard surfaces, cutting his head open, and refusing to come home from school.”

Paul and Kim first realised the impact a dog could have on Thomas when they visited a family member with a dog and found that Thomas was instantly calmer in his presence.

They did some internet research and found Support Dogs’ autism assistance programme. When Support Dogs found the right match for Thomas, he met Marky and there was an immediate and obvious bond.

“As soon as Marky came into the room you could see the change in Thomas – it was amazing,” says Kim. “William was in the room too, but Marky instantly knew it was Thomas who needed help.”

Adds Paul, who as Marky’s handler spent a long period working with Support Dogs’ instructors and trainers: “I didn’t believe that we could get a dog to be Thomas’s best friend. I now realise where all that training goes and where the money goes – you can’t compare a home-trained dog with Marky.”

One of Marky’s most important role is keeping Thomas safe. When they go out Thomas is attached to Marky’s harness to prevent him panicking and running off. Now leaving the house is now so much easier and simpler for the Fletcher family, and even Meadowhall shopping centre, formerly Thomas’s nemesis with its crowds, bright lights and busy shops, is no longer out of bounds. With Marky by his side, helping him to face the world, Thomas feels safe and secure.

“Thomas would never do anything we asked, but he would do anything for Marky,” says Kim. “If we said ‘go and put your shoes on’ he wouldn’t, but if you say ‘Marky is ready to go to school’ he’ll come straight away. Marky has us wrapped round his paw!”

Paul adds:” At eight years old, Thomas doesn’t want to hold our hand all the time, and now he doesn’t have to. In many ways he uses Marky as a comfort blanket. If he has a meltdown, he is trained to lie on Thomas to calm him down, and within ten minutes he is back to his usual self. Before Marky, meltdowns could last all day.”

Over the past few months, things that would have been unthinkable for the Fletcher now seem more normal.  Thomas loves high performance cars and was able to spend all day at Birmingham NEC for an auto show last year. The family was even able to take a caravan holiday on the isle of Wight for the first time.

There have been setbacks. Lockdown inevitably caused all kinds of problems for Support Dogs’ clients, particularly autism clients, with the change in routine and constraints to normal life. Fortunately, because Kim works for the NHS as a GP Thomas was able to go back to school at Easter last year, minimising the disruption to some extent.

Then Paul then seriously injured his hand in an accident and could no longer be Marky’s main handler until his hand fully healed. Happily, Marky adapted seamlessly to working with Kim as his handler. And because of lockdown restrictions Thomas and Marky couldn’t qualify as a partnership in May last year, as scheduled, but finally made it in October.

The whole Fletcher family obviously love Marky to bits, and Thomas and Marky are now inseparable. Marky does ’lap rests’ with Thomas – resting his head of his knee so Thomas can stroke his head, giving him comfort and reassurance. Although Marky is not allowed to sleep with Thomas, he lies next to him when he is reading before he falls asleep, Marky checks on Thomas again before his bedtime and in the morning comes and finds his best friend.

 “Marky came to stay in October 2019, and he is the best thing we have ever done for Thomas,” says Paul.  I don’t know what we’d do without him.”