Sandy Birkeland and husband Tony Wood hope to raise money for a service dog for daughter Lily, who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. It is hoped a dog will help Lily with her day-to-day life. (KARL YU/News Bulletin)

Nanaimo parents hope service dog helps stop autistic child’s self-harming

Sandy Birkeland raising money for daughter Lily through Assistance Service Dogs B.C.

Nanaimo parents hope to stop their daughter from self-harming with help from a service dog.

Sandy Birkeland said Lily, 11, has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and severe anxiety. It affects every aspect of her life, she is no longer in public school and Birkeland and husband Tony Wood seek to raise $25,000 for a dog from non-profit Assistance Service Dogs B.C., in the hopes it can be a remedy.

A year and a half ago, said Birkeland, Lily was striking herself with the palms of her hand about 1,000 times a day, with bruising and bleeding, and although that has lessened, it still occurs frequently. A behaviour program is used, where Lily goes to the hallway to calm herself, but sometimes hits her head on the hardwood floor, Birkeland said.

“It comes with a lot of sensory processing issues, so sound, touch, lots of those things can make her really upset, nervous, anxious and the way she usually deals with that is self-injury,” said Birkeland. “It happens every day. There’s the odd day where there’s none … an approximate day would probably be between 50 and 100 and that’s individual strikes to herself.”

Birkeland receives B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development money for Lily, but there is no money for service dogs. The only way is through charities, she said.

“I think there’s the potential that it could be extremely beneficial,” said Birkeland. “I think it‘ll be a very slow, gradual process. As with anything with her, we have to do it very slowly and very structured. Let Lily come around at her own pace, do it on her own terms, but I think because it’s something that can be consistent with her, everywhere she goes … I think it would be able to provide a calming, soothing, kind of like a levelling for her, so that she would be able to process daily life a little bit better. That’s what we’re hoping.”

William Thornton, CEO of B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs, a separate non-profit support dog provider, said this doesn’t apply to everyone, but his organization has observed that children’s behaviour is “a little more predictable when they’re out with the dog.” It isn’t a cure-all for people on the autism spectrum, said Thornton, but it does mitigate things.

“Let’s say you’re in the mall and the child’s having a meltdown, then the child might sit down on the floor, or something like that,” said Thornton. “The dog is taught to then go across the child’s lap … to try and distract from the actual meltdown because the meltdown isn’t a temper tantrum, [it’s] a negative response to stimuli that’s around the child in that environment and it could be colours, noises, anything because children with autism are very hyper-alert to the things around them.”

Marie Krzus, Assistance Service Dogs B.C.’s office manager, said the industry does have a fairly high success rate, with only one out of 11 placements from her organization unsuccessful and that was due to personal issues. The first six to 12 months are the hardest because the family is essentially welcoming a stranger into the home, said Krzus, and the dog has to be taught that it’s there for the child and a bond needs to be formed. Supports are provided, but it also requires work and commitment.

“Something we tell people is if you’re expecting to get a dog and do zero effort on your part, you’ve come to the wrong place,” said Krzus. “That’s not what a service dog is about … if you’re just going to take the dog and be completely complacent and not continue the dog’s training, the dog’s going to revert into being a pet and will not be able to work for you. So you need to be on board with continuing the training.”

Krzus said one success involved an autistic child who was in Grade 1, not toilet-trained and “non-verbal.”

“Within a year of receiving the dog, he became potty trained and they tried everything,” said Krzus. “They tried therapies to try and potty train him, but when he saw the dog using the bathroom outside, something clicked in his head that, ‘Oh! this is what happens. I need to go to a certain place to use the bathroom.’ … also he began to talk just out of a desire to introduce his dog to other people.”

In an e-mail, the ministry said service dog provision is currently outside the scope of provincial autism funding, but families with children aged six to 18 years, with autism spectrum disorder, are eligible for up to $6,000 a year per child for eligible out-of-school autism intervention services and therapies. In addition, they may be eligible for a number of other supports, including respite, family supports and early intervention therapies.

The ministry said it is investing $95.1 million in autism services in 2019-20.

To donate to the fundraiser, go to www.asdbc.org/autism-service-dog-for-lily/.



reporter@nanaimobulletin.com

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