There’s no clue, as I sit next to Sam’s mum, Emma, watching the seven-year-old chase his beloved dog, of the difficult three years this little boy has had.
And yet, until very recently, I’m told my visit would have driven Sam to hide upstairs in his bedroom. He wouldn’t have spoken to me, or interacted with me in any way, and my very presence would have been a source of stress and anxiety for him. I struggle to reconcile this information with the grinning boy who greeted me at the door; who met my eye boldly as I introduced myself to him, and who has been playing happily since I arrived.
Sam, like around 700,000 other people in the UK today, is autistic. His condition means that he struggles to socialise, is uncomfortable in crowds of people, and - when things were at their worst - often wouldn’t even leave the house.
Today things are very different for the Mills family, and it’s all thanks to one wonderful lady; Sam’s support dog Willow Star.
For those readers that supported The Star’s ‘Pounds for Pups’ campaign last summer, which saw The Star team up with Sheffield charity ‘Support Dogs,’ you may remember Willow as the dog our readers helped raise £5,000 to put through her support dog training. Willow was matched with Sam last summer and came to live with the family at their home in Handsworth back in November. Six months on, Emma says she hardly recognises the happy little boy Sam has become, and it’s all thanks to Willow.
“Willow Star is her stage name,” laughs Sam’s mum Emma, aged 35.
“‘Star’ is in thanks to the Star readers who raised the funds to help train her, but in this house, she goes by Willow, though there’s no doubt she is our star. Life is completely different for all of us thanks to her.”
Emma explains that Sam’s issues began when he was very young, becoming particularly apparent when he started school, a little under three years ago.
“Sam had a speech delay from being about two, but it wasn’t until he started school we began to notice the gap between him and the other children,” says Emma.
“At first we put it down to him being the youngest, but as the children in his class developed and became more mature, their social and playing skills developed. Sam couldn’t keep up with them as they graduated from simple games, like tig, to football, and he didn’t know how to ask for help. Everyone else was growing up and he was struggling more and more. By the time he left reception for year one, everything had fallen apart.
“Within a matter of weeks he was in the nurture unit and not coping in class. at that point, the GP referred him to Ryegate Children’s Centre, and that’s the first time autism was mentioned.
“He was eventually diagnosed six months later and, by that time, the diagnosis was more of a relief, as it meant we could start trying to help him.
“Things were really difficult at first. The weekends were horrible, as Sam spent most of the two days getting over his week at school, so there were lots of meltdown. He’d level off by Sunday night, but then it was straight back to school.
“Getting out of the house together as a family was impossible too, as quite often Sam would refuse to leave the house at all, and he couldn’t handle anywhere with lots of noise or crowds, and everything, even the weather, could overload him. This was hard on everyone, including our five year old daughter Ellie. When Sam was having a hard time, he found it tough even being around her, so it would mean my husband or I taking Ellie upstairs or out, while the other parent stayed with Sam. The family was divided.”
Emma was feeling desperate when, in the summer of 2016, she came across an article about how dogs can help children with autism. A quick Google search led her to the Support Dogs website.
“Sam was in such a dark place at that time, and everything was steadily going downhill,” she recalls.
“I decided to fill out an inquiry form, then I got an email back from Support Dogs, inviting my husband and I to an open day. We went along and met the staff and some of the dogs, and spoke to a mum whose son already had an autism dog. She spoke about so many of the same worries we had, like keeping Sam safe when out and about, as he has no sense of danger and a tendency to run away. We learned about how children can be tethered to their dogs, who can brace to make sure they don’t run off, and heard about the difference these dogs make to the lives of children. I had a strong gut feeling that we’d found what we’d been looking for.”
Willow came to meet Sam the following May, and Emma says the pair clicked straight away.
“They began playing together, and everything just fell into place. We were delighted two weeks later when Support Dogs called to say they were a match.”
After lots of training, including an intense two week training course for Emma, Willow came to live with the family in November.
“It took no time at all for a bond to form,” smiles Emma.
“Now, if Sam’s having trouble, Willow will lay her head in his lap to comfort him and bring him back from his spiral. Sam has trouble with being touched, which is so hard for my husband Stephen and I, as we can’t hold his hand, or hug him if he’s upset, but from day one he’s loved Willow’s touch. Even in his very worst meltdown, Willow will lay with him, and you’ll slowly see Sam’s hand come out to stroke her fur, then she’ll lay a paw on top of him, and the two of them will just cuddle.
“There are commands I can give Willow, when Sam needs her, such as instructing her to sit with him, but I rarely need them, as she knows if he’s bothered, wherever we are, and she’ll immediately come to him to help, they’re very in tune.”
And when she’s not working, Willow is like any other family dog. She had bonded with all four members of the family, gets an hour out running and playing every day in the park, and despite being there for Sam at home, she’s only officially on duty when out and about in her identifying support dog jacket.
“She can go anywhere with Sam - trains, planes, shopping centres and cinemas. She’s changed all of our lives. Recently we’ve been able to go out for family days, such as to the park or Alton Towers. And we’ve seen such a big change in Sam. He’s happier and much more confident. He’s started enjoying family outings and even having people over to visit, which would have caused him great distress before. Of course Sam still has difficulties, but when things escalate, they come down much quicker now.
“Last year Sam was diagnosed with depression, and doctors were looking at medicating him. Now, with Willow by his side, that’s all gone. The doctors were stunned by the difference in him at his last appointment. Willow brings all of his anxiety way down.
“My husband and I have, for the first time in years, been able to leave Sam with his grandparents while we go out to dinner or to the shops, and Sam and his grandad went to eat lunch together in a cafe recently, something which would have been unimaginable last year. It’s these little milestones that are so exciting, and it’s wonderful to know that we have eight more years, while Willow is working with Sam, to keep building on what he can do.
“We were on a path before where Sam’s world was getting smaller and smaller, but now - thanks to Willow - it’s slowly but surely growing again.”