Marie, 43, is a stay-at-home mum who lives with her husband Andrew, 43, an accountant, and their children Daniel, 14, and 11-year-old Elizabeth, in Guisborough, North Yorkshire
I smiled as I tucked my three-year-old daughter into bed. “Night, night, Elizabeth. I love you,” I said. I told her that I loved her every evening at bedtime but the sad truth was I never expected to hear her say those three words back to me. Elizabeth has severe autism and when she was diagnosed, I was told that the chances were she would never learn to speak.
It was heartbreaking saying those words and never getting a response but I still wanted her to know I loved her with all my heart. Elizabeth started having seizures when she was nine months old and trips to the hospital became a weekly occurrence.
I used to be an A&E nurse and once I had to give her CPR because she had stopped breathing. It took until she was two-and-a-half years old before she was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. It is often accompanied by autism and a week after the Dravet diagnosis we were told she had autism too.
I was devastated when I realised that because of her severe autism Elizabeth might never learn to talk. It explained why she found it hard to make eye contact with strangers and didn’t like kisses or cuddles.
But as a mother I knew I would do whatever it took to help her and so I started looking online for more information. While I was searching I came across Support Dogs, a charity that provides dogs for people with autism and other conditions including epilepsy.
I applied immediately but there was a long waiting list and even if Elizabeth did get a dog, I was sceptical about how much good it would do. OVER the next couple of years Elizabeth’s condition made it almost impossible for us to leave the house. Autistic children can fi nd new environments very stressful.
If I tried to take her for a walk around the block, she would lie on the pavement and have a screaming tantrum. Going to the supermarket with her was traumatic too and she would lie down on the supermarket floor and shriek. Other shoppers shot filthy looks at my husband Andrew and I, no doubt thinking that we were terrible parents.
But the truth is certain smells or sounds can be physically painful for children with autism and with all the sights and smells at the supermarket it was too much for Elizabeth to bear. During the summer I would watch other families walk past the window taking picnics and balls to the woods nearby.
I wished I could take Elizabeth and her brother Daniel, who is three years older than her, out for a picnic but sadly we were confi ned to the garden.
Eventually the situation began to split our family in two. We were determined to give Daniel as normal a life as possible so one parent would stay at home with Elizabeth while the other would take Daniel on outings. When she was four, Elizabeth started at a special needs school where she settled in well.
Then a few months later I got a call from the charity saying they had found a support dog for Elizabeth. Oyster was a one-year-old labrador retriever and very bouncy, the perfect match for Elizabeth who also has lots of energy. A few days later a trainer from the charity brought Oyster to meet us.
Oyster was brilliant with Elizabeth and approached her slowly so as not to overwhelm her.
I watched with bated breath as Elizabeth stroked her and I was amazed by how quickly they bonded. When it was time for Oyster to leave the trainer said, “Bye Elizabeth” as she led Oyster away.
“Bye,” Elizabeth shouted. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe she’d just said her fi rst word and I had to blink back tears. Over the next six months I went to training classes to learn how to handle Oyster and in May 2010 the friendly pup came to live with us permanently. It was a beautiful sunny day and I’ll never forget the beaming smile on Elizabeth’s face when she saw Oyster playing with toys in the garden.
She ran out on to the grass and they played together until it was dark. Over the next few months Elizabeth transformed from a child who couldn’t speak or bear to have cuddles to a little girl who was always laughing.
With Oyster by her side we were able to go further and further from the house without her having a tantrum. First we walked around the block, then to the shop, then all the way around the supermarket. I was amazed at how quickly Elizabeth’s confi dence grew. In the summer holidays we fi nally went to the park for a picnic like I’d always wanted to, with a bowl of water for Oyster.
Elizabeth started to speak more and her school was amazed when she started to learn to read.
About a year after Oyster came to live with us Elizabeth, Daniel and Oyster were sitting on the sofa together one Saturday evening. It made my heart glow to see them sitting and playing together so nicely.
“I love you,” I said. Elizabeth looked up at me and smiled. “I love you too mummy,” she said. Tears welled up in my eyes. I never thought I’d hear her tell me she loved me back but after years of waiting she’d finally said those three little words. Since then Elizabeth has started to tell us that she loves us more and more. I truly believe she knows what the words mean and she’s started becoming much more affectionate.
She has an amazing sense of humour and is always laughing and playing with her brother and making friends with other children. Throughout it all, Daniel has been amazing and never uttered a word of complaint despite not being able to do some of the things his friends did with their families.
The transformation in Elizabeth is more than I could ever have hoped for and she continues to surprise us every day. Now she’s 11 and Oyster is still by her side all the time. This summer we’re planning holidays to our caravan in Runswick Bay, North Yorkshire, and we’re even going to Menorca to visit my parents, who have a house there.
If someone had told me the amazing difference having a support dog would make in our lives, I wouldn’t have believed them. I will always treasure that memory when Elizabeth first told me she loved me.
● For more details, call 0114 261 7800 or visit supportdogs.org.uk