It's 2 a.m. in the middle of January in a small town in Oklahoma. From inside the home, chopper noises are heard from a life-flight helicopter flying over, heading to the local hospital. As the chopper sound rumbles into the distance, the fan on the furnace kicks in. In the background of this familiar household noise, the sound of the icemaker clinks atop the noise of a humming refrigerator. Although to most of us these sounds are part of our surroundings and integrated into our sleep, to others the noise is too much for a hypersensitive intake system. Sitting up and now fully awake, he gets up from his warm bed, walks through his house, opens a lock and leaves the safety of his home, running into the neighboring woods. He is wearing only his night clothes, a T-shirt and shorts. His bare feet hit the frozen ground, but due to how he receives and perceives sensory information, he does not react appropriately to the dangerously frozen ground beneath his feet. Not perceiving danger, he moves deeper into the woods.
You might be thinking the story you’re reading sounds like something that would happen to a soldier with PTSD. As true as it could be, this is not the case. This story is about a 10-year-old little boy with autism — a real boy, with a real face, a name and a family. This child is non-verbal and cannot communicate his feelings or fears, nor can he explain why he reacts or doesn’t react to the world around him. He does not realize he's lost and in danger. If he sees a pond or any body of water, for reasons not yet fully understood he will be drawn to it and even if the freezing temperatures do not take his life, this child cannot swim. If an untrained person were to miraculously find him and try to help, the child could possibly endanger not only himself but the would-be-rescuer as well.
Most are thinking, Wait, what about his family? The truth is, Mom spends nearly every moment trying to keep her child safe. Dad goes to work and when he gets home, he takes over the watch so Mom can prepare the evening meal and get ready for the next day. The boy must be watched constantly. The household must be kept quiet with no change in their routine. This family, as well as an increasing number of families who are learning how to cope with life while helping their autistic children, have mastered the art of sleeping with one eye open. There are locks and safeguards on each door and window. Every effort has been made for their precious child’s safety. By the grace of God, this boy this particular night is actually found — near hypothermia, but safe and unharmed.
My phone rings in the dead of night. The family of the boy has been given Dog’s Nation contact information by a Search and Rescue team member. I sleepily answer the phone but immediately become sharply aware of the acute reality of the moment. This family is reaching out as they realize how close they were to the reality so many families with autistic children face — the close reality between life and death. My gift to this family on that fateful night is an incredible service dog named “Journey”.
Journey will sleep with his boy every night and follow him wherever he goes. When the boy tries to harm himself, Journey will distract him. They will walk down the street together and Journey will block him when he steps away. They will negotiate sidewalk intersections, parking lots and get safely in and out of stores. They will attend brother and sister’s sporting events together and Journey will help him stay focused and seated. They will learn to play safely in the park and meet new friends. The boy will begin to see the world through a completely different lens and every night these two will go to the boy’s room and sleep in peace. So will his family. Today, these two new best friends, along with their family look forward to each new day as they take many more journeys, together.
Hedrick is a spokesperson for Dog’s Nation.