My name is Sam, and this is my blog about my journey to get an assistance dog. I am twenty-two, a keen video gamer and writer, I have a disability, and six pet rats.
The first thing people would say if I said this is either “Rats?!” (With a tone of voice ranging from eew – aww!). The second thing said would probably be a comment on my disability, ranging from “You don’t look disabled!”, “I would never have guessed!”, and, of course, the infamous awkwardness where people withdraw and treat me differently on learning of my disability status, to be fair, probably because they don’t know what to say.
I have Asperger Syndrome, hand and feet deformities, and mental health conditions. I’m looking forward to the day when both pet rats and disability become a topic of conversation that isn’t controversial, and believe that will happen in my lifetime (For disability at least anyway! Although I hope it does for pet rats too!).
But to get to that stage, better education on all types of disabilities needs to be provided to both abled and disabled people.
I believe assistance dogs are a powerful tool not only for the people with disabilities they serve, but for abled people to some extent as well. As a disabled person, when I see an assistance dog out in public with its owner, be it a guide dog, a hearing dog, an autism assistance dog, I see hope. I see someone that’s receiving support that often councils are unable to give, family and friends could be unable to give (Not everyone has family or friends anyway), from an animal that has often been trained not only just for its owners condition, but for the specific owner.
For an abled person, however, the dog represents something so much more. It represents the fact that disabled people have their own place in society, and are equals. It represents that yes, disabled people can struggle with some tasks, but given the right support they can flourish. And it represents a friendly (fluffy?) face that is a bridge to help make conversations just that little bit easier on both abled and disabled people.
As a young adult with autism, I struggle with social interaction with people I don’t know. An assistance dog would act as a bridge for me – someone familiar to be my constant, so I can go out and use public transport such as trains and buses on my own, so I can ground my hands in its fur to soothe myself as I talk to strangers and acquaintances. At the thought of meeting new people I can already feel my stomach churning – an assistance dog would help alleviate that anxiety.
They can be trained to either bark or paw at the owner’s leg as if they need the toilet if you make a hand signal at them – providing an excuse to get out of lessons, volunteering, training, or work if the owner is too anxious. It’s good to say autistic people can leave class at any time if needed, but it’s not always that easy. When I need to go, I need to go before I have a meltdown (Type of anxiety attack), not in five or ten minutes after the teacher has finished talking to me.
Dogs can be trained to lie on you like a weighted blanket at night if they feel you shifting about a lot in the night – a method that reduces anxiety in autistic children and adults, without the internalised stigma of using a weighted blanket. Or, for an owner with anxieties in crowds, to ‘block’ between the owner and the crowds.
So there we have some of my reasons behind needing an assistance dog. But how am I going to go about getting one? I’ve got to admit, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s something I need to do. There is one charity in the UK that trains up assistance dogs for autistic children – but only up to ten years old. There is also one that trains up assistance dogs for adults with mental health conditions, but their waiting list has been full and closed for a year or more. My current option I am looking into is a company in Ireland that trains assistance dogs. It costs £5000, plus 23% VAT (Which is not currently claimable back, but is probable that it will be after a court ruling in the future that the dogs are a necessary disability aid.) Then there is the cost of a ferry, and accommodation for a week for myself, my Mum and my support worker to go over to personalise the training of the dog.
Overall, the cost is £7000, which will be my main barrier. I am hoping to do some fundraising, sell some things, possibly do some fundraising events such as bake sales, sponsoring, etc. It’s very early days, but I am hopeful that this is something that could make a real difference to my life and enable me to mostly live independently.
I hope you enjoyed reading my blog, keep tuning in for another update soon!