Boy Interrupted: An Autistic Boy and His Dog
Riley Pitz was in a world of his own — until an autism service dog changed his life in ways his family could never have dreamed of.
Outings & Autism
Before heading out grocery shopping, Niccole and Tim Pitz take a few moments to talk with their son Riley, 8, and go over what they expect from him. No grabbing, knocking things over, or running. If he's good, Niccole promises, they'll take him to see one of his favorite things — the yellow buses parked near his school. "Yay! Let's go!" says Riley. He calls out to Lady, their golden retriever, and helps put a vest on the service dog, telling her, "Better hurry!" In the parking lot of the store, Niccole attaches an adjustable belt Riley is wearing to a loop on Lady's vest. The shopping goes well, but as Niccole grabs a few last items from the dairy case, Riley spots the toy aisle and tries to bolt. Lady holds her ground, preventing Riley from dashing away. Trying to preempt a meltdown, Niccole reminds him of the reward that awaits if he follows the rules. He does. After leaving the store they drive by the school, and Riley greets each vehicle ("Hi, bus!"), grinning from ear to ear.
For the Pitzes, who live in rural Colfax, California, there's no such thing as a carefree outing with Riley. Like many children with autism, he is hypersensitive to his surroundings and demands routine; anything unpredictable — from driving a different route to not having the snack he's accustomed to — can send him into a tantrum of screaming and kicking. As a result, ordinary activities like going to a restaurant or the movies are impossible. The sacrifices have been hard on Niccole, 35, a former legal secretary, Tim, 38, a road maintenance worker, and their 15-year-old son, Brendan. "I still grieve over the loss of the boy Riley could have been," says Niccole. "All we can do is work together to make each day better."
Riley began showing symptoms of the disorder when he was 2. He didn't like being held, avoided eye contact, and was slow in learning to talk. Because he could assemble puzzles, recite his ABCs, and count to 10, his pediatrician concluded he was experiencing developmental delays and would soon catch up. He never did. By age 4 he had stopped speaking altogether. After a five-hour exam by psychologists, Riley was diagnosed with severe autism. Though devastated, the Pitzes also felt relief. "We knew in our hearts for a long time something was wrong," says Tim. "Finally, it had a name, and we could help." Riley was placed in an autism program at a local school. The state provided at-home tutors for Riley as well as training for Niccole and Tim.
It wasn't until Lady's arrival in 2004, however, that Riley began making real progress. Niccole had read about autism assistance dogs and how they can be a calming influence on a child and provide a sense of security. The Pitzes applied to the Oregon-based Autism Service Dogs of America, and thanks to donations from relatives, friends, their church and service clubs, they were able afford the $10,000 price tag. It took Riley a year to adapt to Lady's vigilant companionship; she'd stop short or nudge him when he misbehaved; when Riley tried to ride too far away on his bike, she knocked him down. One day, as Riley was playing with Lady, Niccole heard her son say, "Come!" "He hadn't spoken in a year, and I wondered if I'd lost my mind," she says. "But Tim looked up too, and Riley said it again." He had been listening to his parents' commands and was mimicking them.
Life with Lady
Riley has continued to improve. He talks about school and who his friends are. When he had a sore throat recently, he told Niccole his mouth hurt. And he loves chatting with Lady about his favorite stuffed animal, a monkey named Mooch. "It's been an awesome year," says Niccole. "Riley was moved into a functional skills program where he's learning to dress and groom himself. And he's been mainstreamed into a regular class for reading several days a week."
While it's still a challenge, family life no longer revolves entirely around Riley. Thanks to Lady, the Pitzes now feel comfortable enough to leave him with a sitter while they enjoy a night out or attend one of Brendan's football games. With all the attention his parents have had to give Riley, Brendan is grateful to have more alone time with them. "I used to hate going out with Riley, and when he started throwing tantrums I just wanted to die," says Brendan. "But now he's better with Lady, and I feel closer to him. Plus, I like to help. It makes me feel important."
The challenges of raising Riley have also strengthened the Pitzes' marriage. "Unlike me, Tim accepts what fate has given us, and I draw comfort from that," Niccole says. "We can always unload on each other and say, 'I'm feeling sad or heartbroken,' when we need to — without expecting the other person to take the pain away." With the strides Riley's made so far, she and Tim are cautiously optimistic that he will grow up to become an independent adult. "He's so determined to meet his goals," says Niccole. "And he's a happy kid, which is the greatest blessing of all."
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