Fletcher, who recently turned four, lives in a world of frustration. This little boy has non-verbal autism. He is at the extreme, high needs end of the spectrum: he cannot communicate, or understand those around him. Unable to express his fears, his frustrations, his needs and his emotions, his way of coping is to run… and run… and run – at every opportunity.
Fletcher’s mum Kate and his dad Rick are constantly on high alert, especially when they take their young son out in public.
“He is ALWAYS running” Kate says, trying to explain the family’s constant stress.
“If I take my eye off him for a second, whether we are in a park, a shopping centre or a car park, he just bolts. And he has no sense of his own safety, so I have to run and catch him before he reaches the road – and leave Grace, his five year old sister, alone and say ‘Grace, STAY!… don’t move…’ He just doesn’t stop.”
Last year, Fletcher ran away while they were getting off a train in Guildford. Kate’s instinct was to give chase and grab him before he ran off the platform, which left Grace on the train as the doors were closing. Luckily, a quick thinking stranger held the doors open so Grace could get off the train and wait for her mum and brother on the platform.
Constantly running away, or bolting, as Kate describes it, is not uncommon for children on the severe end of the autism spectrum. What terrifies Kate and Rick is that because their little boy is non-verbal, he is even more vulnerable.
“If I was calling out, trying to find him, he wouldn’t make a noise because he’s non-verbal, so even if he wanted to find me, he couldn’t call back. And he couldn’t ask for help – or even understand if someone was trying to help him, or harm him.”
It’s not just the fear of Fletcher running into danger, it’s the constant interruption to the family’s daily life. So sensitive is Fletcher that he wakes at the slightest sound – and remains awake all hours of the night, disturbing sleep for the whole family.
Theirs is a world of endless nights of broken sleep, relentless anxiety and being on high alert 24 hours a day.
But now Fletcher has met his match with Koha: the very first Guide Dogs WA Autism Assistance Dog. Because of the generosity of West Australians, life has been transformed for this Perth family.
With his beloved dog by his side, Fletcher now sleeps solidly through the night. And where Kate would never have previously dreamed of taking both kids for a stroll by the river, with Koha harnessed by his side, Fletcher’s behaviour has literally transformed.
“Before Koha came into our lives, we were all completely exhausted: we just got stuck at home, because even walking around the block was just so hard and stressful because he just runs, and runs.”
Right now, there are more than 40 puppies in the Guide Dog program. Because of the generosity of West Australians these unique puppies will continue to receive specialised care, training, and even a very special gift this Christmas.
One day each of these playful pups will make a life changing difference to a Western Australian who really needs them – as a Guide, a Companion, or an Autism Assistance Dog like Koha with little Fletcher.