My Best Friends Have Four Legs

Many people rely on their friends for emotional support and to be a listening ear. They seek comfort from those close to them and turn to them in time of need. This is not always easy for me. I have never really connected that well with people and always feel a bit of a burden if I share my challenges with others. Add to this several chronic health conditions and my ability to socialise is limited. 

For this reason, my animals have always been my world. Throughout my life they have been my best friends and my comfort, there have been times when they have kept me going when I felt completely alone in the world and they keep me on track by having to take care of them.

My happiest times are when I am curled up on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket with a dog at my feet and a cat purring on my lap. The closeness of an animal lowers my anxieties and makes me feel less alone. That is when I feel safe and when I feel calm.

I didn’t understand until I received my autism diagnosis just why my animals had been so important to me, now it makes complete sense. I realised I could connect with them in a way that I could not connect with people, my animals loved me unconditionally and did not place excessive social demands on me. They knew when I was sad and needed to be loved, and we didn’t need verbal communication, we did not need words. On top of that an animal does not judge me if I haven’t brushed my hair or changed out of my pyjamas, an animal does not expect me to be anything other than I am.

Following my diagnosis in 2014 I launched the Autistic Women’s Empowerment Project. I had initially planned that it would only be an online project as I was socially isolated, dealing with a serious eye condition, struggling to leave my home and to take care of myself but I still felt the need to do something even if it were just to raise awareness. In June 2014 I was invited to attend The Autism Show in London alongside a company that was training service dogs to work with autistic children. The founder invited me along to promote The AWE project on her stand and instead of being excited I was filled with fear. I had no idea how I would interact with that many people and in such a loud and busy environment, but I was passionate about the recognition of autism in females and I really wanted to do it, so for three weeks I prepared myself. I wrote myself scripts for every possible scenario you could think of and worked out my own social story of what to expect. I watched virtual films of the venue and used google maps to explore the surrounding area to try and prepare myself. I had never visited London or a large exhibition centre before, so my anxieties were huge. Right until the last minute my brain was telling me to run away and presenting me 1000 reasons why I could not and should not even attempt it.

However, despite the overwhelming anxiety, I did manage to push myself beyond my limits which was an amazing achievement for me as I find social interaction difficult and crowded environments extremely overloading. The service dog that attended with us was amazing support. The support of a dog lessened my anxieties. I spent two days with her before the show so that she could learn my ways and her handler worked with me on strategies to lessen my anxiety and to help lessen the sensory overload that would be inescapable.

I didn’t think I would make it, but I did it I overcame my fear. We went over and over the plan and so we were prepared for what to expect. With the dog’s support I made it through the whole show and even managed to have a browse around the stalls. Whenever I had to go outside or walk-through busy environments she was there; she instinctively knew that I had a blind side and steered me away from people and objects. With the help of dark glasses and ear defenders and the interaction of my new canine friend I got through the weekend.

The first day I mostly spent on the floor with the dog interacting with the children especially those who were non-verbal as I have a good knowledge of Makaton. It was heart-warming and inspiring to see the children interact with her; she spent hours playing ball with what seemed like 100s of children. We were by far the busiest stand in the show and we got many repeated visits. 

By the second day I felt comfortable enough to begin interacting with the parents as well as the children and I listened to their stories which is one of the biggest reasons I became a campaigner and advocate. I know I could not have done it without the support of that wonderful pup. 

I have had dogs and cats all my life. Animals have always played a big part in our family; more than just pets they are members of the tribe. Both my son and my daughter are autistic, and their pets have been their best friends whilst they have been growing up. We have had many cats and dogs throughout the years. Many of whom have been rescue animals that no one else wanted.

When I was younger, I volunteered for the Cats Protection League and rehomed many old or unwell cats who were often overlooked when people were looking to home a rescue cat. My home often looked like a retirement home for cats. Many of the dogs my children had when youngsters were also older dogs who just needed a family. It was not just about the love the animal gave to us, it was the love our family gave to the animal and the skills having a pet taught my children. Now that my children have grown up and have their own lives and homes, my pets have become not just companions but also my emotional support.

I had always thought of myself of more of a cat person. I currently have four cats all with very different personalities and they too are wonderful company and emotional support. They help me have a routine no matter how much difficulty I am having with executive functioning they will remind me they need feeding, which then reminds me I need to eat. They keep me company when I’m working, me the computer a line of them sit intently watching; I usually having to push one of them off the laptop. The one limitation of a cat is they don’t like being on a lead and are not very keen on sightseeing. So, after my experiences at the Autism Show I knew I had to get me a dog.

I needed to find a way to overcome my anxieties and to calm my sensory system and for me the answer was my dog. I have always had dogs that complimented the personality and needs of my children. This time I chose my dog specifically for me. Boo the Welsh sheepdog came home when he was eight weeks old. He came from working stock from a Denbighshire farm, Mom and Dad were both working sheepdogs, but he was the runt of the litter and had been bullied a bit which led to him been of quite an anxious nature and we hit it off immediately. He picked me which made up my mind. He understood my anxiety and I understood his and our bond just grows stronger every year. He has loved having me at home all the time during lockdown, though he has missed the new toys that came when I returned from business trips.

Boo is far more than just a family pet. He has been with me six years now. He is very loyal and intuitive, and he has grown into an amazing companion. He learnt quickly that his barking was painful for me and will now only bark if there is something dangerous, such as a smell of smoke or if someone attempted to get into the house. He has learnt to recognise when I am anxious or sad and when I am in sensory overload and he interacts dependent on my mood. I need proprioceptive pressure when I am stressed to regulate my system, just the weight of the dog on my legs relieves the stress and the pain, and he knows intuitively when I need that. 

He is not registered as a service dog, so there is a limit to the places I can take him but despite this he has encouraged me to explore many places that I wouldn’t have gone alone. Each day he learns another skill that helps me and him interact with the world. He encourages me to go out and get fresh air and his presence lowers my anxiety. I really feel a dog gives me a sense of safety and security but also a true sense of companionship that I don’t get from other people. I often find that having a dog encourages communication with others, even if it is just talking about our dogs and how lovely they are. I struggle with communication but it’s easier to make conversation over a shared interest and I never have a problem talking to my dog. He doesn’t care if I stammer or stumble over words. He is often my audience if I need to practice a talk or presentation and as he is getting older he is getting quiet vocal himself.

The best thing about my work with Autistic UK being done at home is not having to leave Boo. He really deserves the label of wonder dog. He is amazing emotional support. He rarely leaves my side. I know he sees himself as an assistance dog. I just never thought it would be an admin assistant. He has become really interested in my work and loves nothing more than joining in a Skype call or even Autistic UK team meetings and he is very good at giving me a hint at 1am that it really is time to go to bed. In fact, he is looking at me and trying to rush me along now.

Both Me and Boo have been a bit lazy since lockdown last March and haven’t been out much. We have spent lots of time in the garden, but I haven’t had much time for walks. Despite barely stepping outside my house since March of last year I have actually been busier than ever and Boo’s walks have been a bit neglected. Luckily Boo is also a bit of a television addict and a couch potato and he is more than happy to curl up on his chair with a doggy film on while I am working away, and we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Disney channel together. But all this sitting around has had an impact on both our waistlines, and we do need to get some exercise and fresh air. So, we are going to use #Walk your Dog Month to get outside a bit more. 

Here’s a few photos of my boy. We would love to hear your stories about your animal buddies.