How a service dog transformed daily life for a boy with autism

Atlas and his lab Harris have such an amazing and special bond

When Atlas Anderson was a pre-schooler, he often had meltdowns and ran away. Having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), he was highly sensitive to everyday things like new environments, making transitions, and busy crowds—but he lacked the words or body language to explain what was upsetting him. Making friends was hard too, because Atlas was unable to cope with the chatter and rambunctious play of neurotypical kids his age. His mother, Kat Anderson, worried about what the future would look like.

Something as seemingly banal as a grocery run was next to impossible with Atlas in tow. “When Atlas was upset, there would be a lot of shouting—he’d be really loud,” says Kat. “We were really desperate; we weren’t functioning as a family; and life was kind of crumbling. We were prisoners inside our house, because it was so difficult to leave the house.”

Then along came Harris. Trained by National Service Dogs, the super-calm yellow lab-golden retriever mix moved in with the Andersons to help ease Atlas’ anxiety and bolting tendencies. He came everywhere with Atlas—attached by a tether, when they left the house—as the then-three-year-old navigated life at home, school and out in the community. Most people associate service dogs with visual impairment, but these highly trained animals can also change the lives of kids with autism—and their families.

Kat and her husband, George, took an intensive training course before Harris moved in. “It was our first time away from the kids in a few years, and I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing vacation—but this turned out to be anything but!” she says. There were so many rules to learn.

It can be disappointing, when people first meet Harris, to be told they mustn’t feed him treats or shower him in love and belly rubs. But he’s not a pet. Even Kat and George’s youngest child, Poppy, keeps a respectful distance. Whenever possible, Atlas is the one who will give Harris food, let him out for pee breaks, and show him affection.

Initially Atlas showed little interest in his dog, and he had to be prompted and rewarded with goldfish crackers to do things like offer a treat or fill the water bowl. But after several weeks, Atlas started giving Harris gentle pets and talking to him when the two were alone in Atlas’s room—as Kat and George were surprised to observe one evening on the baby monitor that they still used to make sure Atlas was safe upstairs in his room. Now it’s been five years since Harris and Atlas became an unstoppable team.

At school, Atlas is communicating more with his classmates, and he feels included. “Just being beside a dog all day draws the attention of his peers,” says Kat. “And guess what? Kids like dogs! And it brings people closer to his little bubble.” And whenever Atlas feels anxiety in his daily life, he pets his dog as a distraction, until the difficult feelings subside. And from the day he began leaving the house tethered to Harris, he has never run away.

The family enjoys many outings now, and they’re even planning a trip to Jamaica. “Looking forward, I know that we’re good and we can face anything,” says Kat. “Our future is bright.”

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