Guiding Eyes Celebrates New Companion Dogs For Autistic Children

Yorktown-based nonprofit sees benefits for children with special needs and their families.

Nonprofit guide dog school Guiding Eyes for the Blind celebrated on Thursday the graduation of six dogs from the Heeling Autism service dog program at their headquarters and training center in Yorktown. The families who received dogs for their children were joined in attendance by many of the volunteers who worked with the dogs.

Since its inception in 2008, Heeling Autism has matched 55 service dogs to families with autistic children. The child wears a safety belt attached to a vest worn by the dog to prevent the child from bolting away or straying into danger. A Heeling Autism dog in a family can also provide companionship for the child, reduce parental stress, and increase social acknowledgement of the child by his or her peers which can increase the child’s own confidence.

Peter Cole, a parent from Port Chester who is receiving a dog named Madison for his son, Jasper, said that keeping their son safe is Madison’s most fundamental job.

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“Jasper will be physically tethered to her when we’re in dangerous circumstances,” Cole said. “I think she’s going to help regulate him and keep him a little more focused and a little calmer. Therefore, she can enable him to tolerate stressful situations such as loud public places, restaurants, and movie theaters.”

Survey data shows improvements for children in areas such as sleeping, traveling, and eating. According to Guiding Eyes, children with autism experience difficulty sleeping, in some cases because of seizures. If a guide dog sleeps in bed with the child, it can allow him or her to feel less agitated and sleep through the night.

When asked what he was most looking forward to in the future now that his family has Madison, Cole responded with traveling. “Our long-term goal is being able to travel,” said Cole.  “We were big travelers before we had kids, I would love to get on a plane again some day.”

Each family expressed deep gratitude during the luncheon, telling the group about their children, the obstacles they’d faced, and how they were looking forward to welcoming their new dog. The dogs moved in with their families for the first time on Friday.

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