Service dogs help autistic children, families

Dog provides peace, safety for the entire family

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ORLANDO, Fla. - One in every 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder and for their parents every day holds new worries.

"Everyone sees someone in a wheelchair and they can see they have a disability, but when you look like a cute little blond 7-year-old who's cheering, you don't know there's a disability," explains Theresa Merriam, whose daughter is autistic.

But now, Merriam and her family have some peace of mind thanks to a service dog trained to track and find her daughter when she wanders off and alert them a good hour before she has a seizure.

At least once a week the Merriam family does a "track and find" drill with their dog Heaven.

For 7-year-old Taylor Merriam, it's like playing hide and seek. For her mother, she says it's a potentially life-saving practice. For many families who have a child on the autism spectrum this is a real-life scenario.

"Parents who have kids on the spectrum are sometimes on a more heightened alert because they know their child has a tendency to run or wander. So having Heaven there is just amazing," said Merriam.

While Taylor looks like a typical second grader, she has Asperger's syndrome which makes her prone to seizures.

And that is where Heaven lives up to her name. The service dog has been specially trained by a non-profit group called 4 Paws for Ability.

One of her specialties is being able to sense an oncoming seizure a good one hour before it happens.

"Kids or anyone who has epilepsy, before they have a seizure, apparently they have a pheromone, a chemical smell that comes out of their ear and these dogs can smell it," Merriam said. "There were so many times that Taylor had seizures where she was having labored breathing, or stopped breathing, but having a dog now that is barking at the start of a seizure is so amazing we still get goose bumps when we're walking from our room to hers in the middle of the night and the dog is barking and we know exactly why."

Heaven isn't just a life-saving dog, like any canine she offers Taylor companionship which is something that doesn't come easy for a child with autism who has a hard time interacting with kids her own age.

The Merriam family was fortunate enough to be able to raise Heaven's $13,000 price tag in a rather short amount of time with help from the community.

But as you can imagine, it can sometimes take families a few years to raise the money.

Click here for more information on the program or if you would like to donate to 4 Paws for Ability.

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