West says Jewel, her son Holden’s autism support dog, has been an amazing addition to the family and has helped Holden gain confidence. (Courtesy of BC & Alberta Guide Dogs)

Autism support dog helps Langford boy hold his head high

Family shares story for Autism Awareness Month

The love and support of a dog can be life changing – and no one knows that better then Shannon West and her son, Holden, of Langford.

Holden, 13, has autism, and used to sometimes struggle simply with leaving the house.

West said her son had to be held in someone’s grasp at all times.

“This meant avoiding going to any stores with him because I had to let go of his hand to pay,” she said. “We arranged all our walks for areas in which he couldn’t bolt. We arranged everything around where we could safely go with Holden.”

And random dogs would frighten Holden, sometimes causing him to scream or panic.

READ ALSO: Fight for autism diagnosis arduous for adults in B.C.

But that was life “before Jewel.”

Jewel, a black Labrador retriever, gives the family the power to go almost anywhere.

Jewel came into their life in January 2018 from an Autism Support Dog Team in Langford, through BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, a registered charity that breeds and trains guide dogs to help with people with vision-impairments, youth with autism and veterans or police officers with post traumatic stress disorder.

West said that when Jewel is tethered to Holden, she can trust that he will be safe.

“Animals give us a sense of calm and [Holden] was very scared of a lot of things,” she said. “She is something tangible to hold onto.

She’s clearly not a guard dog by anyone else’s standards, but to Holden, she’s protection and security,” West said.

And Jewel has helped Holden with his confidence and independence, giving him the freedom to enjoy outings with his family.

“We can walk trails without worry that he might get very scared. It’s incredible. The first time we were out walking and some dogs ran for us, I braced myself for the screaming, but it never came. The first time.”

April is Autism Awareness Month, designated to bring awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity around the world.

West said one of the biggest misconceptions she sees is that people think Holden can’t understand what’s going on around him, because he is loud and non-verbal.

READ ALSO: Vancouver Island parents hope service dog helps stop autistic child’s self-harming

“Almost every autistic person I’ve ever met or ran into, understands every word of what’s being said around them, regardless of whether they show any outside reaction,” she said. “[Holden] has got a lot going on up there and he understands what’s going on.”

She also hopes people understand that while types of autism are wide-ranging, people just want to be treated with respect and care.

“We call it a spectrum because it really is one,” she said. “People are people – with all the same hopes, dreams, wishes, thoughts and ideas…and that is regardless of whether they are high-needs or low-needs.”

West said Jewel has helped her son gain confidence he didn’t have before, and that “he walks with his head high now.”

She said without the charity, they wouldn’t have been able to afford Jewel and her training.

“A heartfelt thank you to the charity, the donors and all the volunteers.”

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Shannon West, her son Holden and his autism support dog, Jewel, go for a walk. Jewel has given Holden confidence and helps him navigate the world as young teen with autism. (Courtesy of BC & Alberta Guide Dogs)

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