“Cohen was around 18 months old when he began to regress in his speech and eye contact.
“It was heartbreaking for us to see our once happy, carefree little boy become very anxious and non-verbal. He totally shut down into his own world, would struggle to focus on anything, and didn’t even respond to his name.
“He began to have frequent meltdowns and, at the age of five, began to bite his hand in frustration.”
These are the words of South Yorkshire mum Sarah. Her son, Cohen, now aged nine, has a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum condition, global developmental delay, hearing impairment and complex epilepsy. In September 2015, Support Dogs provided the family with autism assistance dog Azerley, who immediately began working with Cohen.
“Before Azerley joined our family, life was very difficult for us all but especially for Cohen,” she says.
“Cohen really struggled to go out anywhere. The noises and people caused him great anxiety. We depended on his special-needs pushchair to keep him safe because he has no sense of danger. He would either bolt, running straight on to the road in front of traffic, or fall to the floor.
“Cohen is extremely sensitive to noises. He is unable to filter sounds so every noise is the same volume, whether it be the sound of a siren or the buzzing of a light bulb.
“For our older son, Joshua, it became very difficult as he longed for us to have ‘normal’ family outings, such as a visit to the cinema or to go bowling.
“We found ourselves becoming extremely isolated and unable to go out as a family.
“Before we started the programme, I had read how autism assistance dogs had helped families in various ways and, just as each child is unique, so is each partnership, so I did not know what to expect.
“Cohen struggled to focus on anything and did not show any interest in animals so we had little expectation regarding Cohen interacting with a dog, but on the very first day Azerley arrived Cohen was instantly calmer. His anxiety levels reduced so dramatically that he stopped biting his hand – something he had done for a over a year when he became frustrated. Since that day Cohen has never bitten his hand once.
“The first few attachment walks with Azerley were eventful as Cohen had to learn how to walk sensibly.
“This had a huge impact on me as I realised we needed Azerley not only to keep Cohen safe but also to teach him behaviour that is socially acceptable.
“Azerley is the key to helping Cohen integrate and build essential life skills. We noticed that Cohen became much more involved and engaged in the world around him. No longer in his own little world Cohen started to make eye contact with us and to interact with his surroundings.”
The Star has launched our ‘Pounds For Pups’ campaign this month, to raise £5,000 to fund one dog’s training.
Hundreds of people like Cohen have benefited from a trained assistance dog in the 25 years since Support Dogs launched in the city.
Through its three training programmes – for disability support dogs, autism dogs and seizure alert dogs – the charity uses a reward-based system to teach dogs to carry out a wide range of tasks that make life safer and easier for its clients.
“That first year with Azerley exceeded any expectations we had,” Sarah adds.
“Cohen was mostly non-verbal and initially we taught Azerley a few signs so Cohen could communicate with him but incredibly Cohen started to use words and phrases. Since then Cohen’s language has improved so much he can now sing!
“We found we were able to go out as a family, going to the cinema, visiting museums, and Cohen built his first ever sand castle on the beach.
“He was showing more interest in his peers and even started to initiate play with his big brother Joshua. I was looking back on the photos recently of the many amazing ‘firsts’ Cohen has accomplished with Azerley and I realised I’m not grieving any more for the son he was.
“Cohen is overcoming so many boundaries to his learning, his sensory issues and to understanding the world around him.
“Cohen now has the confidence at least to try most things, to speak, to sing, to walk barefoot on the sand.
“While celebrating all these successes, something unknowingly has happened to me. My heart no longer aches.
“I now know that Cohen will fulfil his true potential, whatever that may be.”
n Visit Support Dogs-Donate to find out more about how you can help us reach our £5,000 goal. Alternatively, text SDogs15 and the amount you’d like to give to 70070, or call 0114 2617800