The lack of adult autism supports didn’t stop Becca Lory from creating what she needs. Here is the beginning of her journey with an Emotional Support Animal.
As a woman diagnosed on the spectrum in adulthood, I struggle to find autism supports, period. But I am not alone, we, the adult autistic community, struggle as a group to find survival and quality of life co-existing anywhere. It’s a little shocking isn’t it? Especially with all the media attention autism gets these days, right? The reason why this giant gap continues to exist is still unclear, though much energy is expended passing blame and pointing fingers and dollar signs. Yet, as I sit here staring my 42nd birthday in the face, the reason why is not what I care about. I’m not looking for a long debate about who is responsible for what or what the newest absurd reason is for this giant void. What I am looking for is action. I need a plan. I need some funded resources. I need housing and employment solutions. And I need them now, in my lifetime, not when everyone is done “discussing” it. I am fed up and I am tired of asking, ‘where are my adult autism supports, dammit’?!
I am not much of a fan of complaining and I am definitely less of a talker and more of a doer.
Since my frustration level was at its peak with the issue of adult supports, or lack thereof, I decided to do something about it. Why should I sit around waiting and suffering while somebody else decides what supports I can I have, right? That idea is not only ludicrous but also a giant waste of my one non-renewable resource, time. It’s been said that the average lifespan of an autistic is 36 years. As I set two feet squarely in my forties, I am more aware than ever that I am I on borrowed time, and it is not a luxury I can afford to waste.
My earlier foray into the world of supports found me drowning in tools for mini-spectrumites, trying desperately to adapt them to adulthood. Not a total failure, as it eventually led me into the heart of mindfulness practice, where I found that the supports I needed, were the ones that appealed to me naturally. A strength-based approach to supports if you will; banking on my love for new information and an unknown enthusiasm. So when I next decided to tackle adult supports, I started by looking at my passions and strengths.
For me that meant, autism, animals, and the written word.
Gratefully, my boyfriend, Antonio, is also an animal lover. We’ve been together for two plus years and are happily sharing six cats, two dogs, and two snakes. All rescues, by the way. One of our two dogs, Walter, is now our Emotional Support Animal (ESA). But, I am jumping ahead. I had only just become self-employed, speaking, consulting and writing, while behind the scenes, I was raising my first puppy. An adorable hound mix rescue named Walter. When we rescued him, he was like any other five-month-old puppy. But I had high hopes for my floppy-eared pal. I wanted to take a shot at Walter being more than a rescue mutt. I wanted to see if we could train him to pass the therapy dog test and be my living, loving adult autism support.
We began with basic obedience training. It wasn’t easy for any of us. Everything had to be broken down into steps that Walter could learn but it also had to be structured to accommodate for my poor coordination, my struggle with vocal control, and my emotional regulation issues. A nice way of saying, it was super frustrating for me and I had to learn not to raise my voice when working with Walter. Each lesson, Walter would first learn from our trainer with us watching, then Antonio would learn from him, and then we would get home and Walter would have to do it all over again while Antonio taught me how to teach Walter. Poor guy got trained three times for each command. But he was showing himself to be a solid candidate. Learning, if at a hound’s pace, but more importantly we were bonding, and he was patient; his temperament and personality a perfect match for our way of life. With each visit to the trainer, Walter would get more excited to arrive, whining as his nose identified the location. Once there, we would push his challenge lines and he would always show up wagging.
I began to notice Walter’s other strengths.
As we graduated from obedience to the more complex training needed for the therapy dog test, I began to notice Walter’s other strengths. He somehow knew when I was restless and in need of proprioception. He would lumber over in his goofy, giant-footed way, and plop down with all of his body weight on my legs. He would let out a big sigh as my body would relax and deflate like a punctured inner-tube. Walter was also proving useful in social situations, providing a topic of conversation that I could actually maintain. His walks and exercise meant walks and exercise for me. His feeding and meal planning became another opportunity to practice executive functioning skills and the vets’ office is always a lesson in budgeting. More and more I was noticing his impact on my daily life and it was amazing. Even my mental health was better. There is nothing like a cute puppy face to motivate a depressed person to get out of bed. Walter’s care and training were naturally creating opportunities for real-time use of those challenging skill sets. And then we got to our trial therapy dog test.
You must understand, we took Walter for his first test way before his second birthday, the suggested age for testing. We him took him knowing he would fail because we wanted to know his strengths and challenges. Sound familiar? As Walter’s main handler, Antonio took him in. I was left to watch through a one-way mirror. As I watched all the other dogs sit with their person, I realized that it didn’t matter to me whether Walter passed this test, not now or ever. Walter was turning out to be so much more than a therapy dog. He didn’t just work some of the time, as my adult autism support, he is working all the time. Moreover, I didn’t want him to be the perfect dog to work with strangers, I wanted him to be the perfect dog to work with me.
As expected, Walter did not pass the therapy dog test.
He got kicked out for wanting to play with all the other dogs and whining about it. But none of that mattered. The conversation that followed is what mattered. That was the day that we decided that Walter was not going to be a therapy dog after all, because he was better at being an Emotional Support Animal. You see in all the time we spent training and working and bonding, Walter had learned all about me and my needs, not to mention Antonio’s. He is responsive and loving and patient. He is relaxed, and nothing bothers him. Walter grounds me. Walter is my constant. Walter keeps the chaos down. Walter is my perfect adult support.
There is plenty more to this story, including what we are up to now.
That silly puppy became not only the best autism support ever, but he led both Antonio and I to adopt a strength-based approach with the non-human animals we share our lives with. Walter is now a proud Emotional Support Animal (ESA) who travels with us across the country as we share the wonders of the human-animal connection with the autism community. He is now the teacher training us. While the quagmire of existing adult supports and its complimentary void still need to be traversed, it is my belief that the animal world is our first bridge to both a longer shelf life, and a far better quality of life for adult autistics alive now. <3 ^-^
Are you interested in the benefits of emotional support animals for those on the autism spectrum? Becca Lory and Barry Prizant will be speaking on the topic at the University of Denver’s “Animals on the Mind 3.0” conference May 3-4, 2018. Walter will be making a special appearance too! There’s a 50% discount for autistics. Go to the Institute for Human Animal Connection to register.
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