Kaiden doesn't make friends easily. That's often the way with children with autism spectrum disorder.
But when Murphy, a 13-week-old labradoodle, moseyed up to the boy and smothered him with slobbery puppy love, something magical happened – cuddles, smiles, connection, and friendship. It was meant to be. Because Kaiden's folks are looking to get their special boy a special dog, a therapy dog. And the meeting was a test to see if a boy and a dog were right for each other.
'Kaiden just melted, loved him” says mum Elley Mullany. 'Absolutely the right match up,” says Kiwi Pride labradoodle trainer Wendy Isaacs. 'Perfect temperament – calm, sensitive and affectionate - and Kaiden could have had that dog right there and then.”
But sadly, it was not meant to be. Not yet anyway. Because Murphy is already spoken for. This was just a test run. Boy and dog have ticked all the boxes for compatibility but there's a matter of cost.
The Mullanys are going to need a hand. And understanding Kaiden's condition will help understand his needs, why this dog is so important and why we might like to help.
'I have to think about what autism means for Kaiden because these things are everyday for us,” says Elley, a mum who has had to completely re-adjust her parenting style. She talks of emotional overload, meltdowns and explosive behaviours. 'Being out and about with people can be very stressful for him,” says Elley. 'He also has sensory processing disorder which means he becomes overwhelmed by external stimuli, including crowds, noise, temperature, light and smells.”
The world can be a confusing place for people like Kaiden – they don't necessarily understand social norms. They are very literal and so don't always get what people say and mean. And sometimes they overload and meltdown.
'In the past Kaiden would just take off, run for it. It's incredibly upsetting for him. In the early days in the shopping mall there would be yelling, shouting and hitting. He wasn't being naughty, he was overwhelmed and not coping.”
That's when people become judgmental. 'You could sense them looking and thinking ‘what a dreadful parent you must be'. But you just have to let that go. Until you have an autistic child you just don't get it.”
But Murphy gets it. It's intrinsic. 'A dog like Murphy is predictable and understandable,” says Elley. 'The dog would become the centre of attention rather than Kaiden, and help him cope in new and unfamiliar situations and when meeting new people – times that cause Kaiden incredible stress and anxiety.”
Murphy is a therapy dog as opposed to an assistance dog. As assistance dog performs tasks for people with disabilities. A therapy dog like Murphy has oodles of affection, comfort and companionship to give away to a small boy with his own special needs.
'A therapy dog will be unconditional and unquestioning, no hidden agendas, they are what they are. Highly intelligent, very calm, easily trained and an ideal friend for someone with autism.”
And as unconditional as a mother's love.
'Incredibly so. You couldn't not love Kaiden. Everything about him is lovely. It's a misconception children with autism don't have empathy; that they're not caring or feeling. He's full of life, extremely affectionate, bright and happy. He is just a kid.”
A kid who needs a special kind of dog to jump on the end of his bed at night. Because when the lights are going out in Papamoa, it can signal more difficult times in the Mullany house. 'Kaiden doesn't sleep very well – it's an autistic trait. He struggles to resettle after his horrendous nightmares. So that means broken nights for everyone.”
A labradoodle that looks like Murphy parked at the bottom of his bed would deliver reassurance and companionship. Then everyone gets to sleep.
This is where we do the sums. A labradoodle like Murphy would cost $3300. The early training which starts at eight weeks and lasts four months costs $4500. The Mullanys have raised $4200 and so the shortfall is $3600.
'I am a primary-trained teacher and I home school Kaiden. It's a privilege and I am blessed to have my boy 24/7, to have so much time to really get to know and enjoy him. But it also means we are a one-income family and the dog is way beyond our means.”
A Givealittle page has been set up to bring a dog home for Kaiden. If you would like to help, go to www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/therapy-dog-for-kaiden
'We have quite a few litters to choose from at the moment,” says trainer Wendy Isaacs. 'It's just a case of matching up a puppy with Kaiden's needs. It should be an easy match because Kaiden has a gentle nature. In four months we could have a puppy asleep on Kaiden's bed.”