The Fontana household has always been hectic, between four kids to get to school each day and a baby to care for at home. Those hectic mornings can be particularly tough for Mark, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old.
Almost completely non-verbal, transitioning from home to school was a challenge. Mark would compulsively flap and scream, and even began to run away.
“He would compulsively run away. He would run into the street,” Mark’s mother, Emily Fontana, told TODAY. “He would run outside and try to jump into any pool even though he couldn’t swim. It was absolutely terrifying and we lived in constant survival mode.”
Mark’s disability made him feel isolated and his inability to use speech to communicate created a barrier.
But the Fontana family found hope in a furry face named Echo when they learned about a program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind that used dogs’ skills in a different way.
Guide dogs in training, like TODAY’s Wrangler, have the ability to follow the career path best suited to their set of skills. The dogs can become guide dogs for the visually impaired, or they may end up becoming a companion for a child with autism, which is exactly what happened with Echo when he was paired with Mark.
Caroline McCabe-Sandler, the director of Guiding Eyes’ Heeling Autism program, says they have now trained and placed more than 60 dogs with families like the Fontanas.
“It’s 100 percent success. It really is,” McCabe-Sandler said. “I watch children who are normally held by the wrist tight, parents so stressed. I watch these children kind of dancing next to their dogs … they’re happy to be free.”
The Fontanas say they saw the changes in Mark almost immediately.
“Mark exhibits a confidence that I’ve never seen before,” Fontana said. “Mark is a cool kid at school now. He’s got a dog.”
Teachers and therapists have noticed improvements in Mark too, and thanks to Echo, the Fontanas say they’ve been able to regain some of the family life they were missing.
“My hopes for Mark are that he will continue to grow,” Fontana said. “I really think Mark is going to surprise us all. You wait.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Heeling Autism Program provides trained service dogs free of charge to families with children with autism living within two hours of the organization’s New York headquarters.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.guidingeyes.org/autism. Please note that the program is currently not accepting new applications in an effort to service families on its lengthy waiting list.
However, they are just one of a growing list of organizations pairing dogs with children with autism. Here are additional national organizations providing service dogs for children with autism: