By Constance Labat and Kathryn Walsh
Life for families with a child on the autism spectrum disorder is difficult enough during normal conditions. But today, with social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions in play, families are dealing with more anxiety, confusion, and stress — and less support.
“All families are facing obstacles, but our autism families are facing unique and unprecedented challenges far beyond what is typically being experience in this country,” said Alison Singer, President of the Autism Science Foundation, in a press release from the organization in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) announcement that the prevalence rate for autism has risen from 1 in 59 to 1 in 54.
“The rise in prevalence is concerning,” said Singer, “but more concerning to us right now is that children with autism are sheltering in place due to coronavirus, and many are suffering tremendously due to severe disruptions in their routine and lack of access to mandated therapeutic services.”
One local company that is helping families affected by autism during this time, and in general since 2016, is BluePath Service Dogs, a nonprofit based in Hopewell Junction that provides children thoroughly trained companions to help them combat the daily struggles that accompany autism.
As with many nonprofits, BluePath Service Dog’s mission continues despite the pandemic. In late March, BluePath — which places dogs with families who live within a two-hour radius of its headquarters — placed three new autism service dogs with families. These placements were done in clients’ homes with special protocols in place to honor social distancing.
One of the dogs’ purpose is to reduce bolting tendencies — which may include abruptly wandering off into dangerous situations — that can occur among children with autism. The BluePath dogs are trained to be tethered to a child’s waist and anchor them in place should the child begin to wander.
Yet, BluePath dogs offer more than just physical support. The organization has found that the dogs significantly reduce parents’ safety concerns and help children to lead fuller lives. And that reduced stress, improved sleeping routines, and more meaningful social interactions can allow families to feel a renewed sense of hope and empowerment.
Peekskill’s Nancy Flaherty, mother of 20-year-old Kaitlin, who received BluePath’s Chester in August 2019, explains, “[Chester] allows her to do things that everyone who doesn’t have autism takes for granted” such as participate in social exchanges while out in the community and walk around the grocery store — during normal times (i.e. not during social distancing). Chester helps Kaitlin tackle her anxiety, with a trusted friend by her side who provides not only safety but also love.
Sandi Millman of Scarsdale says her son Alex’s BluePath dog Clancy “is an amazing dog who helps our family do all the things that families do [during self-quarantine], including our regular walks around the neighborhood. Alex and Clancy have a wonderful and cohesive working relationship. Clancy keeps Alex safe, and for that we could not be more grateful.”
On average, it takes $40,000 to raise and train each dog, but because raising a child with autism can cost five times as much as raising a mainstream child, BluePath ensures that these dogs are given to families for free. But this couldn’t be done without fundraising. Although the organization’s 4th Annual Walkathon has been moved from May 16 to October 3, a fundraiser is going on right now.
In honor of World Autism Day on April 2, BluePath supporters Carol Parish and Marty Zeldin have committed to BluePath’s Autism Awareness Challenge Grant, a dollar for dollar match, up to $5000, for the first week of April (through April 9). To donate go to www.bluepathservicedogs.org), Facebook (@BluePathServiceDogs), or by sending a check to 8 Country Club Road, Hopewell Junction, NY 12533.
To date, 12 service dogs and one facility therapy dog have been placed by BluePath, and there are 41 dogs in training. To apply for a service dog go to www.bluepathservicedogs.org.