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First Published Sunday, 29 March 2009


Bichon Frise

ACTRESS and model Emma Noble knew her little boy would be overwhelmed by his new pet, but even she did not expect such an emotional response.


For as young Harry opened the front door and saw his mum sitting on the stairs with his gift on her lap, his mouth opened in shock — then seconds later tears began to fall and his little body began to shudder.


After what seemed like an eternity, the eight-year-old blurted out: “Put him on the floor, Mummy.”


Seconds later he was hugging the little bundle of fluff and declaring: “I love you, Shoeshine,” while the pup jumped all over his new owner.


It was the beginning of a very special friendship and one which has helped Harry — who has autism — on many levels.


Since Shoeshine — a bichon frisé — moved in with Emma and Harry just before Christmas, the isolated world which the youngster inhabited has opened up hugely.


Today he is happy to leave the house, will chat contentedly to strangers and is learning to empathise with others — none of which was even a vague possibility before.


Autism is a life-long developmental disability which affects social skills. It is thought that dogs have a special affinity with autistic children and help them because they provide a constant in a world which the child can otherwise find confusing.


In the US it is well established that dogs can help autistic children out of their isolation, but the theory is still relatively new in Britain.


In fact, the idea to get a puppy came entirely from Harry, whose dad James — son of ex-PM John Major — was divorced from Emma in 2003.


Years ago Harry started to develop a phobia of dogs, even insisting on crossing the road if he saw one, so Emma started taking him to her parents’ neighbours to see their little pet.


With regular visits, Harry soon forgot his fear and developed a real love for dogs.


Emma says: “One day he asked me out of the blue, ‘What would it be like if I had a friend, Mummy?”


“It broke my heart because Harry doesn’t have many friends. His family are his friends. But there he was, thinking of a dog in terms of a friend.”


From then on, Harry started avidly reading books on dogs, watched every documentary and film he could find to do with them, and talked non-stop about how much he wanted one as a little friend.


Toys


Emma, 37, says: “I also had a phobia of dogs after getting badly bitten on the back of my legs as a little girl, so the idea of having a dog in the house certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.


“But Harry kept on about how much he would really love a little friend, so slowly I started to come round to the idea.”


Harry first started showing classic signs of autism when he was two and a half.


He lost all the language he had learned, started to leave food that had touched other food on his plate, would line up his toys for hours on end and withdrew into his own little world, hardly responding when Emma tried to communicate.


Just a couple of months later Harry was diagnosed with the condition. At around the same time, Emma broke up with husband James.


Now, thanks to Emma’s determination, Harry is a little chatterbox, although he is still struggling to deal with many other aspects of autism.


But Shoeshine is definitely helping him to cope.


Emma says: “He is such a good dog, he is so affectionate and Harry adores him.


“Shoeshine looks like a teddy bear, he has such a lovely, smiley face that I’m sure his unthreatening look is part of why Harry feels safe with him.


Love


“Play with Shoeshine is very simple. It’s repetitive, throwing a ball or stick for him over and over.


“And Harry loves that he can easily change the agenda.


“Unlike with other children, who might object, Shoeshine is happy to go along with whatever Harry wants.


“His love for Shoeshine is also helping him to empathise — something he would never have done before.


“Harry understands that Shoeshine needs to eat and get exercise, so he’s learning to appreciate the needs of others.


“When Shoeshine has been ill, Harry gets very upset.


“I was amazed one day when Harry said, ‘Poor Shoeshine’.


“It may sound like such a simple thing but for Harry that is massive — for him to be concerned about someone else.


“Before, if I’d told him I was poorly he would understand it but wouldn’t worry. Now I’m hoping that might begin to change.”


Another major change for animal-mad Harry is that he is a lot happier going outside.


Emma, who lives near Cambridge, says: “Home is his sanctuary.


“He knows where everything is here, but outside he suffers with sensory overload and becomes very anxious.


“Now Harry understands that Shoeshine needs his daily walk — it’s in the puppy rules that mustn’t be broken.”


And once outside Emma has been delighted to see Harry interact with strangers — something he would never have done before.


Again, the link is Shoeshine. Before, if someone approached Emma and Harry for a chat he would avoid eye contact and discussion.


But now, inevitably, the conversation turns to Shoeshine, who Harry is more than happy to chatter about.


Emma says: “Harry is so proud of his dog. He always introduces him as his friend.


“He has come on so far and I have no doubt that Shoeshine is a big part of his development.


“I recently went to his school where he read me a book — of course, it was about dogs — but that was such a major milestone for us.”


Emma is asking Sun readers to “stand up for autism” on April 2 to mark UN World Autism Awareness Day and help increase understanding of the condition.


To find out more, visit waad.org.uk. For information and advice on autism, visit the National Autistic Society’s website at autism.org.uk.


Source:   http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/woman/real_life/article2346343.ece



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