Guide dog charity helps family cope with autism

When the Kaler family brought home its autism support dog, the change was almost instantaneous.

"It’s night and day," mom Nicole Kaler says of the family’s life before and after getting Pepe.

Kaler’s eldest daughter, Maya, was diagnosed with autism before she turned three.

"It was that typical regression," Kaler remembers.

At about 19 months, Maya started using fewer and fewer words, she wasn’t walking properly and was sleep disordered.

"And she was just not engaged," says Kaler.

Maya, now 13, is considered severely affected by autism. She is non-verbal and needs to have someone with her at all times.

"You don’t know what she’s going to do," says her mom.

Like many people with autism, Maya, who is the eldest of three, also has a tendency to run off, which can make outings difficult and stressful, especially with two other youngsters to worry about. Kaler kept using a stroller until Maya outgrew it at age six.

The family also tried hiring someone to help out during outings, but that meant finding a qualified individual and then relying on them whenever the family wanted to have a day out.

It took the spontaneity out of life and encroached on the family’s privacy.

"We started sort of limiting what we did," she says. "It just felt like with just a little something we could be so much more."

In 2008, Kaler found that something the family needed. She was flipping through the newspaper when she came across a story about a North Delta family receiving the first autism support dog from Ladnerbased B.C. Guide Dogs. Kaler called the organization and had the application couriered over. Nine months later, the family received Pepe, a chocolate lab.

Today, Pepe attends classes with Maya at Elgin Park Secondary, and even has her own student ID card.

Kaler says Pepe not only provides that comfort and companionship to Maya while she’s at school, the dog has also acted as an ice breaker for students who might be curious about Maya but afraid to ask.

"It’s been a really essential piece of what we needed to move forward with Maya in a dignified way."

B.C. Guide Dogs recently launched a sixmonth crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising $50,000 to start training a new crop of puppies. It can take up to two years and a total of $35,000 to train one dog.

To make a donation, visit www.fundaid. ca/bcguidedogs.

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