Just over a year ago, Holly Clarke, six, couldn’t bear to be touched by anyone other than her mother, who she couldn’t be apart from. Now thanks to a dog she is a different little girl. Catherine Scott reports.
Holly Clarke’s best friend in the world is her dog Rolo. Not only does she take him for walks and play ball with him, but Rolo helps to keep Holly calm and give her some much-needed independence away from her mum, Amanda Moreman.
Rolo is no ordinary pet. He has been specially trained as part of the Dogs for the Disabled PAWS scheme to help autistic children like six- year-old Holly.
“Rolo has been a godsend. He is a real member of the family, but more than that he has really helped Holly,” says Amanda. “She has sensory issues which means she doesn’t like to be touched. It meant that she would only let me touch her, comfort her or do things for her, which has been very hard on her dad. She is also audio defensive, which means she just can’t cope with certain types of noise. Life was really quite difficult.
“She wouldn’t let me out of her sight which was hard, but since we got Rolo that has all changed. I can’t imagine life without him.”
Holly was diagnosed as being autistic at two years old. She didn’t hit the normal developmental milestones.
“I didn’t really suspect that she was autistic, because she did give eye contact, she played peekaboo and also pointed at certain things.”
But Holly was very late walking and talking and suffered from a weakness down one side of her body. And as she grew older she started to develop other signs.
“If she fell down and hurt herself she would only let me pick her up and comfort her.”
Although Holly is very bright, she struggled at school, especially with the noise. It was while receiving some support on how to help Holly in Barnsley that Amanda heard about PAWS.
“They were looking for families to take part in their workshops. We were having a tough time with Holly and I was worried that getting a puppy could make things ten times worse.”
But Amanda decided to take the plunge just over a year ago and bought chocolate Labrador Rolo.
“I’d read about the interaction between dogs and children. We took Holly and her brother to choose Rolo. She was fixated by him immediately.”
Five days later Amanda was contacted by PAWS to say there was a place for her and Rolo on the course.
PAWS (Parents Autism Workshops and Support) was set up in 2010 by Dogs for the Disabled, an innovative charity which developed the training of assistance dogs to work with children with autism.
With a grant from the Big Lottery Fund, and a number of trusts and donors, The project is supported by the National Autistic Society and Lincoln University.
The university is currently undertaking research into the effectiveness of using dogs to help children with autism to help increase knowledge of the relationship between dogs and people
“Dogs have an incredible calming effect when a child with autism is angry, anxious or distressed,” says Katie Bristow-Wade, Project Team Leader for Dogs for the Disabled’s PAWS.
“They can distract a child from disruptive or dangerous behaviour. A trained family pet dog can have a massively beneficial impact. But at the moment, most of this in anecdotal and we felt that it would be good to get some more evidence-based research into it.”
Unlike Dogs for the Disabled assistance dogs, which are trained at great expense and then placed with a disabled person, PAWS dogs are normally existing family pets, specially trained at one of the PAWS workshops held regularly around the country.
“You don’t have to have a dog to attend the workshop,” explains Katie.
“If people are unsure about getting a dog and they have an autistic child then they may prefer to come to the workshops first and then decide whether to go ahead and get a dog. It is a big commitment and not always the best for everyone.”
Parents are taught how to teach their dogs a number of tricks which helps them intervene and diffuse any situation,
“If a child is having a tantrum and can’t be calmed down, then the dogs are trained to just put their paw on the child’s arm, or play ball with them. It just defuses the situation,” explains Katie.
“The dogs have no expectations from the child as adults do. It can help improve the child’s self- confidence.
“They become real members of the family.”
For Holly, having Rolo has changed her life. Where she shuns adult touch, she cuddles Rolo.
“My dog is my best friend,” she tells me, happily chattering about Rolo. “He licks my face and I don’t mind. But the best thing about him is that he is always there for me and plays with me.”
“She loves to tell people about him,” says Amanda. “People stop and ask her about Rolo and she is happy to talk to them about him where she would never have talked to them before.
“Holly and Rolo are quite well known with the shopkeepers round us, and she is even allowed to take him into school.
“He has also helped to teach her some road sense. Before we got him she had no idea about roads, but now she is attached to Rolo, with me holding a lead as well, she has to make him stop and sit at the kerb before crossing.
“He has helped to teach her to cross the road.
“But the main thing is that he stops her getting stressed. If we spot the signs then Rolo with go in and can divert it. It is lovely to see them together.
“Right from the beginning they bonded. They trust each other 100 per cent, but they both know when they need to have some time apart.”