Jack Lyons and his little brother Charlie race down their cul-de-sac on a Friday afternoon, with matching brown mops of hair and matching book bags, to be greeted by another member of their family – Nelson, a three-year-old yellow lab who, by the end of his workweek, is visibly weary, undoubtedly from all of the attention he gets at school. Nelson is a service dog who accompanies the nine-year-old Jack to school each day and helps Jack cope with the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome, a type of autism.
Ella Lyons can’t say for sure why or how the companion animal is able to help her son, but she is thankful that he can.
“It has been a night-and-day transformation,” Ella said.
In kindergarten, Jack was diagnosed with the disorder, which is characterized by difficulty in social interactions, repetitive behaviors, speech irregularities and, less frequently, motor impairments. Because the symptoms of the disorder are evidenced through social interactions, doctors were unable to make the diagnosis until later in Jack’s development, and he was previously considered developmentally disabled.
“We knew there was something,” Ella said, noting that her son’s earliest symptoms were that he was late to begin walking, and would flap his hands when he was agitated or excited.
From the time he was first diagnosed as having a developmental impairment, Ella and her husband, Steve, tried a number of different therapies to care for their son’s special needs. For the physical symptoms, Jack underwent occupational therapy to both hone his fine motor skills and encourage sensory integration, and the guidance of a nutritionist was sought to make sure he was gaining weight and that his body was absorbing nutrients properly. Socially, Jack’s parents enrolled their son in private care and in play groups for children with special needs, all of which was pursued outside of the support that Falls Church City Public Schools was already providing from the time Jack entered its preschool program.
“The school provides a lot for these kids,” Ella said. “But we felt like we wanted to do everything we could, so we had double services for him.”
The Lyons soon reached a point where they had exhausted all of their therapy options, and while their son had improved since his diagnosis, he still struggled with the symptoms of his disorder and suffered from anxiety and nightmares.
A glimmer of hope, however, came to Ella from an unlikely place.
While watching Good Morning America a few years ago, Ella saw a segment about an autistic boy who benefited from the company of a service dog, and the story struck parallels with the struggles of her son.
“I burst into tears watching that,” Ella said. “I said, ‘That’s Jack.'”
She decided that a service dog might help her son, and set about finding a way to try this new therapy. After an internet search, Ella found Service Dogs of Virginia, a non-profit organization which trains dogs to assist people with disabilities throughout the state and places them with those individuals.
“We had run out of therapies, and they had dogs for kids with Autism,” Ella said. “I just wrote a heartfelt letter and they said that absolutely, he is a candidate.” Ella completed the application process, which involved such steps as securing many letters of reference and recommendation for her participation in the program. With the application process complete, the family still faced the challenge of finding the right dog for Jack – made that much more difficult by the fact that Jack was afraid of dogs, especially the loudness of their barking.
After weeks of meeting a number of dogs that just weren’t the right fit for Jack, one fateful trip to the organization’s Charlottesville training center resulted in Jack meeting Nelson, a 1 ½ year old pup who Ella says was inexplicably ideal to be her son’s companion.
“Nelson went right to Jack, as if the dog knew,” Ella said. “I don’t even know how to explain that.”
Jack went through a two-week training to learn how to work with Nelson, and the dog was then placed with the Lyons in May 2010.
The Lyons saw an immediate change in Jack from the time he met the dog. Ella says communicating with Nelson made her son interact more profoundly with his parents and his brother, and that Nelson was able to pull Jack out of moments of repetitive behavior (like hand flapping or pacing) by giving the boy gentle nuzzles with his snout.
“It brings out a confidence in him,” Ella said. “Nelson responds to Jack’s quiet, little voice.”
She said that building a relationship with the dog has also helped Jack to communicate with others because he is able to empathize with the dog, often speaking to Nelson in baby talk and inferring what the dog might be thinking or how he is motivated. As Nelson brings about many questions from strangers during their outings, Jack has also become practiced at speaking to people he isn’t familiar with about his dog and even shows off a few of the tasks that Nelson has been trained to perform, like leaving treats untouched atop his paw and sitting upon command.
The Lyons wanted Nelson to go to school with Jack, and worked with school officials to set up a plan to bring the dog into the school in the least disruptive way possible.
Though the school didn’t have a policy to dictate how a service dog would be used or managed within the school, Liz Germer, director of Special Education and Student Services for Falls Church City Public Schools, said the school wouldn’t let that stop Jack from bringing Nelson to school. So school officials followed state guidelines for service dogs in schools while they wrote a brief policy on the matter, adopted in January, which simply states that animals are permitted at the school when required by law. Germer said that while researching policies at other schools, she found that not many Virginia schools have a written policy on the use of service dogs.
“At that point, there wasn’t a lot of model for policies and regulations out there, so we had to take our time and make sure that we had the policy that was in compliance with all the laws and regulations,” Germer said.
A more in-depth regulation was passed in April, as the school was waiting for changes to the Americans With Disabilities Act that were in the works earlier this year. The regulation defines what service animals are; discusses how they should be used; and sets guidelines for the management and, in the case of a wayward animal, dismissal of the animal.
“There are safeguards in place because if there were problems with an animal, ultimately we are responsible for the learning environment and the safety of all of the students,” Germer said.
School officials took such precautions as sending letters out to parents explaining the situation, and making sure that children with pet allergies or severe dog fears were placed in different classrooms. Ella also introduced Nelson to parents during an after school open house so that they were comfortable with him being in the classroom and “didn’t feel bullied” into having the dog share a classroom with their children.
“The staff has been wonderful. The whole school has helped the process,” Ella said. School staff members volunteer to take Nelson outside for bathroom breaks and look after him while Jack is at lunch and in gym class.
After a four-day trial run at the end of the previous school year and a summer spent accompanying the family on outings, Nelson was ready to join Jack as he began his third-grade year, and Ella says it has been “an incredible year.”
“The teachers notice the improvement the most,” Ella said, noting that his speech is improved, his anxiety has decreased and he no longer has the severe nightmares that troubled him before Nelson joined the Lyons household.
The Lyons promote self-advocacy in Jack’s treatment, and while the they currently plan to send Nelson to school with Jack as he enters the fourth grade, they plan on leaving the decision as to when Nelson stops going to school up to Jack.
“Middle School is a whole different story,” Ella said. “Service dogs have a 10-year working span. Will Jack need him at 16? It’s up to him.”
For now, Ella expresses her thanks to the organization that trained Nelson by holding fundraisers to support their mission – the most recent, a May 24 event at Dogfish Head Alehouse that raised $4,000 – and Jack enjoys many of the same activities that his classmates do, including Scouting, book club, computer club and Odyssey of the Mind, with the support of his four-legged friend.