This photograph was posted online by Shanna Niehaus, the mother of five-year-old Kainoa. The caption for it touched thousands of people all around the world to the bottom of their hearts.
“See this moment? I’ve never experienced a moment like this. Yesterday was the first day my 5-year-old autistic son met his new Autism Service Dog, Tornado. We are Americans that live overseas in Japan and have prepared for nearly two years to meet Tornado.
This picture captures the face of a mother who saw her child, who she can’t hug, wash, dress, snuggle, and touch, freely lay on his new service dog of his own free will, with a purposeful, unspoken attachment. This is the face of a mom who has seen her son experience countless failed social interactions on the playground in an attempt to have a friend. Any friend. Any kind of connection. She has sat with her son while he has cried at night for months because he has no consistent connections outside of the family, no matter how hard he tries and no matter what he works hard on in his autism therapies. It doesn’t transfer to the natural occurring world for him. And now she is sitting behind her son silently watching this moment, with the air sucked from her lungs, and no words to say.
It’s worth every fight for services for my son, every diagnosis, every new provider, every dollar spent, every paper filled out, every school meeting, every shed tear, every step forward, every step back, and every wonder of the unknown future. Somehow because of this — because of Tornado — I know everything will be okay. As a mother, I have seen countless challenging and painful moments my son has encountered and cried countless more. Yesterday, however, I cried for a different reason. It is a feeling that is indescribable.”
It’s difficult to imagine what a mother feels when she can’t even hug her own son without risking him having a panic attack. Children with autism find it extremely difficult to establish a connection with those around them. This is why dogs are sometimes specially trained to help them. They can calm a child down when they have a panic attack, look after them, and notify their parents that help is needed. Because dogs behave differently to people, autistic children often find it easier to socialize with them.
Autism is not an illness; it’s a unique form of development. It can’t be “cured” with medicine. But dogs can help the people who experience it overcome some of their difficulties. Their care, devotion, playfulness, and warmth can do so much to help autistic children establish connections with the world around them.