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A pioneer in the guide dog field, Guiding Eyes for the Blind is now assisting children with autism and their families. The nonprofit recently welcomed five parents from across the region to their headquarters in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. for a special graduation ceremony where they celebrated their children’s new autism service dogs.
Heeling Autism dogs ensure safety for children with autism and help them to develop lasting emotional and social bonds. As a result, families are able to lead more normal, less stressful lives. Parents often report other life-changing benefits as well, including seeing their children transform from a social outsider to an accepted peer with an autism service dog by their side.
“Our September graduating class includes five very special dogs -- Heeling Autism Gabriel, Daryl, Nixon, Indo and Gibbs,” said Caroline Sandler, Director of the Heeling Autism Program at Guiding Eyes. “Each one has undergone extensive training to prepare for their road ahead.” Over the following week, Guiding Eyes staff will travel to the families’ homes to assist with the first “hook-ups” – when child and dog work as a team for the first time.
In many cases, having a Heeling Autism dog can be a matter of life or death for an autistic child. Parents rank their children’s wandering or bolting as one of the most stressful of all behaviors. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with autism who wander away from a safe environment.
Since launching in 2008, Guiding Eyes has placed 43 dogs through the Heeling Autism program and maintained a 100% success rate. Each child receiving a dog has experienced an improvement in one or more areas, such as bolting behaviors, verbal abilities, sleeping patterns, and social interactions. Each dog is individually trained to meet the needs of a specific child. The sooner a child receives help, the more likely he or she is to break away from autism’s social barriers and emotional obstacles.
“Every day, we understand more about the exponential powers of our dogs and marvel at the impact they’ll have in their new homes,” Sandler said. “They’ll help children and their parents, they will support siblings and friends, and they’ll strengthen families’ connections with their communities. Quite simply – they are going to make the world a better place.”
Outcomes from the Heeling Autism program are tangible; caregivers report dramatic and meaningful improvements in children's behavior and in the overall quality of family's lives. A child who once rarely dined outside of his home is now able to sit through a meal with his dog; another who was once ridiculed by his peers is finding acceptance.
Linda and Jay Forcello of Hyde Park, NY have tried countless therapies over the years to help their autistic son – all without much success. At 10 years-old, Sean has limited verbal abilities, mostly using signs to communicate. He bolts in public without fear. Sean is becoming more anxious as he gets older and never interacts with his peers. Linda, worried about her son’s lack of relationships, says, “Everybody needs a friend.”
Sean now has Heeling Autism Daryl, a black Lab with whom he will share a deep, meaningful relationship where verbal communication is not important.
Guiding Eyes invests significant resources into breeding, raising and training these special dogs, yet does not charge families for any of its services. There is no cost for the dogs or the long-term professional training needed to ensure every family’s success.
Currently, there is a two-year waiting list for a Heeling Autism service dog. Guiding Eyes is seeking additional donors to provide more children throughout the region with expertly trained dogs that will dramatically improve their lives.
“We are extremely grateful to the Hatfield Family Fund for generously sponsoring our September 2012 Heeling Autism class,” said Sue Dishart, Guiding Eyes’ Vice President for Marketing and Development. “We always invite people to join the Guiding Eyes team as a volunteer or donor to help us change lives. It’s so encouraging to find how much people’s own lives are forever changed as a result of their support.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is located at 611 Granite Springs Road in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. and can be reached at 914.243.2208. For more information on the Heeling Autism program, visit https://www.guidingeyes.org/prospective-students/children-with-autism/.
About Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is an internationally accredited 501(c)(3) nonprofit guide dog school founded in 1954. Since its inception, Guiding Eyes has grown to be one of the foremost guide dog schools in the world, known for its cutting-edge training programs, commitment to excellence, and dedication to its elite and superbly trained guide dogs. In 2008, the school launched Heeling Autism, a service dog program designed to provide safety and companionship for children on the autism spectrum. Guiding Eyes provides all of its services at no cost, and is dependent upon contributions to fulfill its mission. The organization’s Headquarters and Training Center is located in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. and its Canine Development Center is in Patterson, N.Y. For more info, visit www.guidingeyes.org, like Guiding Eyes on Facebook (www.facebook.com/guidingeyes) or follow @guidingeyes on Twitter.