A sister's story of hope

By Maddy Zarro

I was six when my brother regressed, so I remember how it changed our family. The constant doctor’s appointments, the hours spent in waiting rooms. The cabinets bursting with medication, the never-ending stream of therapists in and out of our home. Most of all, though, I remember the fear. The way my dad’s shoulders tensed every time we left the house. The way my mom tracked my brother’s every movement, unable to look away from him for even a second.

I remember that we never entered a room without first noting every possible escape route. I remember helping my little brother into neon shirts each morning, and hoping that it’d make him easier to find in a crowd. I remember the photos of him that we kept in our wallets, ready to be thrust into the hand of the nearest police officer in the event of an emergency that seemed all too likely.

When Danny developed autism, his world became a hostile and overwhelming place. His sensory processing difficulties heightened every sensation, to the point where the sound of a door closing was deafening and the touch of shirt tag felt like the lick of a flame. He lost the ability to communicate, and he couldn’t explain to us the pain and discomfort he felt every day.

Like many other children with autism, he was prone to elopement--sudden bolting or wandering that placed his life at risk every time we stepped outside of our home. Our family dynamic changed dramatically, as it was always necessary that one parent stayed with Danny while the other tended to my sister and I. We lived in constant fear of losing him. And so we prepared for disaster in every way that we could, or we didn’t leave the house at all.

When Shade bounded into our lives, all of this changed. As his autism service dog, Shade walked beside Danny attached to him by a tether. She kept him safe when he tried to wander, and calmed him when the world around him was too much to take in. Autism had made much of my brother’s world inaccessible to him: his environment, his peers, and even his family. But with Shade, we saw his world reopen. Shade taught Danny how to walk safely and independently, which made it possible for us to travel as a family again.

For the first time, I saw other children approach my brother, and want to meet him and his dog. With a quiet smile, my brother showed them how to feed Shade treats and pet her velvety ears, and engaged in the first social experiences he’d ever had. Shade gave Danny a gift of safety and security that not only saved his life, but also became a platform from which he could learn, grow, and succeed. With Shade by his side, Danny could finally connect to the world and the people around him.  It was, and is, beautiful to see.

Shade has been a service dog for the whole family. Every night, I hear her pad down the hallway into each of our bedrooms, sleeping in each for a few hours at a time as part of her nightly routine of checking on us. She’s been known to seek out the person in the room who needs her the most--whether they’re ill, anxious, or uncomfortable--and plop her big head onto their lap for them to pet. Having Shade in the house has eased the fear that once pervaded our home, and replaced it with love, laughter, and joy. My parents no longer have to decide which of them will stay home with Danny while the other attends a family event or runs an errand; with Shade, we can share in experiences that would have once been impossible. Shade has brought us closer together than we ever dared to hope.

One in 59 children with autism means that many families walk autism’s arduous path as we do. My family supports BluePath Service Dogs in the hope of paying forward the miracle that we received to other families like ours. In joining BluePath, we have found a community unlike any other. BluePath isn’t just there when your child receives a service dog. They are there before, in the social and emotional support that a network of families provides. They are there when your service dog is just a puppy, travelling to raisers and fosters and trainers who open their homes to rambunctious little puppies and celebrate every milestone in their training, every step closer to helping your child. And they are there after, for every step that child and service dog take together, toward bountiful years of happiness and growth. Autism can be a difficult path to walk; but thanks to the love and kindness of BluePath, my family no longer walks it alone.

Maddy snuggling with BluePath Lakota.

Maddy snuggling with BluePath Lakota.