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Canine connection

On an overcast winter afternoon, Foster Zeck grabbed the leash of his chocolate Lab named Spirit. Together they stomped through snowbanks on their way from the kindergartner's elementary school to a nearby stop sign. Foster's mother and younger s...

Autism

On an overcast winter afternoon, Foster Zeck grabbed the leash of his chocolate Lab named Spirit. Together they stomped through snowbanks on their way from the kindergartner's elementary school to a nearby stop sign. Foster's mother and younger sister were close behind.

Soon Foster, 6, dissolved into the snow, giggling as Spirit licked his face.

"Piya," he says, referring to the dog between bouts of laughter. "Help."

Like any boy, Foster has a special bond with his dog. But Spirit is more than a household pet. She's his bridge to a confusing and sometimes overwhelming world.

At 2½ years old, Foster was diagnosed with autism. Children with the developmental disorder demonstrate a wide range of characteristics, but nearly all have difficulties with social interaction and communication.

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Foster knew more than a dozen words by the time he turned 2 and then stopped using them, says his mom, Bonnie Zeck. Anytime his parents pulled into a Kmart parking lot, he'd stick out his arms and scream, effectively barricading himself in the vehicle.

But more worrisome for Foster's parents and his three siblings was his tendency to wander.

Last June the young boy disappeared from his home's yard three times within 10 days. At least one of those times, police found him in Lindenwood Park walking near the flooded Red River, his mother says.

"He doesn't have a sense of danger and boundaries that other kids have," she says.

To help Foster negotiate the world around him, his parents sought a trained service dog for kids with autism.

Spirit, trained by an organization called CARES in Kansas, joined the Fargo family last August.

Foster liked his furry friend from the moment they met, Zeck says. The family went to Kansas to pick up the dog and spent a week training together. Overwhelmed in a crowd of unfamiliar people, Foster crumpled to the floor. Spirit came over and licked his tears.

Dogs cross barriers

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Dogs, especially those trained as service or therapy animals, can reach children with autism in a way that people can't, says Dr. Rachel Fleissner, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Attentive Mind in Fargo.

Autistic children struggle to understand social cues and how other people feel, she says. But they can learn how to empathize and bond with an animal and later transfer those skills to strangers.

"Animals are a lot more forgiving. They don't expect you to sit and say hello and ask how you're doing," Fleissner says. "They don't get upset if you don't make eye contact with them."

A dog won't cure autism, she says. But if a family is committed, a dog can help a child become a more social part of the world he or she lives in.

"The dog gives the child a lot of confidence," she says. "It's like having a best friend or your mom with you all of the time."

Eric and Dawn Herrmann of rural Dent, Minn., are in the process of raising money for Ivan, a yellow Lab-Newfoundland cross who will be a service dog for their son, Wyatt, 6.

Wyatt doesn't speak, but is a flight risk, his father says. When the autistic boy was 4, his dad found him ready to jump into a nearby bait pond. A year later, the county sheriff's department called when they found a nonverbal boy walking on a nearby highway. Wyatt had learned how to shut off the alarms on his home's doors, Eric Herrmann says.

The Herrmanns plan to tether Wyatt to Ivan until their son learns that the two can't be separated. They expect Ivan will move into their home in May. He has been trained by an organization in Wisconsin.

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"Wyatt knows no fear," Herrmann says. "For us, (the dog) is a safety issue."

For the past five months, Spirit has slept in Foster's bed and accompanied him on most outings. Someday the Zecks hope Spirit will go to school with the young boy. First the youngster needs to learn how to command her, his mother says.

But the differences in Foster have been tangible, say his parents and one of his therapists.

Connections made

Becky Dorsher, an occupational therapist, has worked with Foster for the past two years. Before the boy was paired with Spirit, Foster had a short attention span and seldom looked people in the eye. He often threw tantrums when changes were made to his routine, she says.

Now he is calmer and makes eye contact more often. In the past few months, his verbal skills have improved.

Some of Foster's advances could be credited to early intervention that is now paying off, Dorsher says. But she has no doubts that Spirit's presence contributes to his recent successes.

"He has a reliable coping mechanism now," she says. "If he's frustrated or overwhelmed, he can lay down by Spirit and she calms him. She gives him an opportunity to be social."

A couple of weeks ago, Foster went up to his therapist, looked her in the eye and clearly said, "Hi, Becky" for the first time.

With Spirit at his side, the boy calmly will enter Kmart, his mother says.

In December, Foster's parents, Bonnie and Richard, visited his kindergarten classroom with Spirit. They talked to Foster's classmates about autism and then asked their son to hide.

Within a couple of minutes, the chocolate Lab found her young charge both to the relief of his parents who hope she'll find him if he ever wanders off again and to the amazement of Foster's classmates.

When Zeck picks up Foster from school, she often brings Spirit along. The friendly Lab attracts the attention of students who pet her or exclaim, "Look at the doggie!"

Zeck imagines that some day Spirit will give her son something familiar and comfortable to talk about with his classmates. She hopes his peers won't hesitate to come up to him because he'll have the friendly canine at his side.

"There are so many doors that close for kids with autism that the dog can open up," Zeck says. "I don't want (Foster) to be the kid who talks funny. I want him to be the kid with the dog."

Effects autism can have on behavior

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a group of disorders that affect a child's behavior, social and communication skills. About one in 150 children are diagnosed with them.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorders might:

- Not play "pretend" games (pretend to "feed" a doll)

- Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over)

- Not look at objects when another person points at them

- Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all

- Avoid eye contact and want to be alone

- Have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings

- Prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they want to

- Appear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond to other sounds

- Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk to, play with or relate to them

- Repeat words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)

- Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions

- Repeat actions over and over again

- Have trouble adapting to changes in routine

- Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound

- Lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were once using).

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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