As the parents of an autistic child, my husband and I knew in the back of our heads that the day would come when C. J. would get teased for his speech apraxia or would be taunted for his seeming inability to play Duck, Duck, Goose in a normal fashion. Sadly, that day arrived sooner than later a few weeks ago on the playground. The details are largely unimportant, except that I was wildly proud of our daughter for serving as C. J.’s knight in shining armor. Conversely, I felt like I was taking a bullet to the heart over the less happy reality that our son looked shaken and confused by the middle-school bullies who had chosen as their victim a generally innocent, happy, and affectionate 3-year-old.
Luckily for me, however, my husband and I adopted Boomer, an aging, overweight Beagle/Basset mix shortly before we conceived C. J. Little did we know as we signed his adoption papers that we were introducing our family to the one being who would help protect our middle child and teach him empathy in ways we never possibly could. For example, it was Boomer who insisted on sleeping next to C. J.’s bed when his seizures worsened halfway through 2009, and it was he who, as recently as February 2010, predicted a particularly bad epileptic episode by dragging one of C. J.’s toys over to him while he slept on the couch.
Yet there’s another angle to “Boomer, Superhero Extrordinaire”–the pooch who can foresee seizures and guards the pint-sized person in our home who suffers from them. With Boomer in our family, our son (and his parents) will never have to worry that the playground bullies and classroom snickerers will define the majority of his relationships. Despite being sore and arthritic, Boomer would never begrudge C. J. a tail wag and a nose kiss, even if the price of such affection came at our boy rolling over his beloved pet on the living room floor.
Boomer is likewise the only family member to regularly receive enormous, unrequested bear hugs from C. J. Heck, even I don’t get those most days when he hops off the bus! And, when we have an unhappy experience at the local park, it’s far easier to shrug off the ignorance of others if C. J. can open our front door and find an animal who loves him unconditionally.
After all, Boomer doesn’t ask C. J. to parrot what new words he’s learned at school. He doesn’t demand that he sit politely in his chair during dinner (no easy task for a child whose senses are totally out of whack). Nor does Boomer accost C. J. near the monkey bars at the playground and laugh at the fact that we’re still potty training him. Instead, he trumps every other two-footed being in C. J.’s life by wagging his tail when our son crosses the threshold, no matter what kind of day either of them has had. Boomer loves our boy despite all the difficulties and sorrows that so often touch the lives of families who are impacted by autism. Just as importantly, he reminds us of the many triumphs and joys that continue to shape our existence.
In a world where we’ll eventually have to learn to let go and say to each of our kids, “Hey, kiddo, good luck! Hope you learned some empathy, compassion, and sensitivity in our home,” we can use any help we can get in making this ambition a reality. In the meantime, Boomer has got our back and is giving his all so that C. J. is happy, comfortable, and safe. By the end of the day, he’s also managed to teach our son that love knows no boundaries and that communicating ideas, information, and affection isn’t always wrapped up in words. While I have experts running hundreds of tests on C.J., Boomer’s got a tail, a few extra pounds of canine, and the tools to break down a wall that MUST crumble if our little boy is to ultimately thrive. Our dog is therefore far, far from a pet. He’s an embodiment of all the purest emotions that ideally shape our interactions with the rest of the world. And, to C. J., Boomer practically IS the rest of the world and the countless wonderful things that are in it.
–Katie Marsico has written for Tails since 1999. In addition to contributing feature stories to the magazine, she now will write a weekly blog post for Tattle Tails, giving us a glimpse into her often funny and always chaotic life as mother, pet guardian, and writer.