It was the first time in four years that Tommy Schiller, 10, of Kirkwood, slept through the night, and it was because of a dog.
Tommy was diagnosed with autism when he was three-and-a-half years old. Symptoms came on suddenly and mother Maura Schiller thought they might go away. They did not.
“Every year, Tommy lost skills despite all of the therapies and interventions. When he was about 5 years old, it really got bad,” Maura said.
Self-mutilation, anxiety and running away became a part of Tommy’s life, and nights were never restful. Tommy would bang against the window all night, constantly run to the bathroom to wash his hands and tried to start fires in the microwave, according to Maura.
But then the Schillers brought home Art, a 1-year-old English Cream Labrador Retriever, in April. Within the first week of Art joining the Schiller family, Tommy slept soundly. The dog’s presence dramatically reduced Tommy’s destructive and obsessive actions.
The effect of Art on Tommy shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Art hails from 4 Paws for Ability, the only organization in the country that trains service dogs specifically to treat those with autism, according to Maura.
Securing Art was a yearlong process, requiring extensive paperwork, documentation of Tommy’s symptoms and $13,000 from the Schillers.
On April 17, Tommy and his parents traveled to the organization based in Ohio for an intensive 10-day training session. During the course of applying to get Art, Tommy had developed a fear of dogs. The first nine days of the training didn't look promising. On the tenth day, however, Tommy finally bonded with Art.
“On the last day something clicked over with Tommy, and he decided, ‘Wow, I really like this dog,’ and it was a total breakthrough. We left on a happy note,” Maura said, adding that she was frightened Tommy would not be able to adjust to Art before the training ended.
Now, Art accompanies Tommy everywhere. When Tommy goes with Maura to the grocery store, he is tethered to Art. Before Art, Tommy would constantly run away at the store.
“We can command Art into down position, and Art acts as anchor for Tommy,” Maura said. “We thought Tommy would hate this but he is actually comforted by being tethered.”
Tommy is a deep sensory seeker, according to his mother, and the deep pressure provided by the tether helps him calm down. Sensory integration is commonly used in autism therapy.
Art also is trained to track Tommy through his scent, a reassurance for Maura who calls her son “an escape artist.”
Art goes with Tommy to school at where Tommy is a rising fourth grader in the Special School District.
Tommy started bringing Art to school at the beginning of May. The turnaround in Tommy’s behaviors were signficant by the time school ended May 23. Tommy’s negative behaviors decreased 75 percent overall. Maura will always keep Tommy’s most recent report card.
“It was the first time we got a report card from Tommy’s school that showed improvement. It was the most wonderful feeling I’ve had to see he made some progress,” Maura said.
Art has also helped Tommy with social interactions.
“Kids are interacting with him and not running away,” Maura said. “Tommy doesn’t always say hi back, but he’s smiling and making eye contact.”
The mother is grateful for the support of Tillman and principal Lisa Greenstein who Maura says has been wonderful.
The Kirkwood elemtary school made a lot of plans for issues that arise with a service dog, including handling other students with fears or allergies, or what to do with the dog in a fire drill, at the cafeteria or in a classroom, according to Greenstein.
“There was a lot to think about. It was definitely a very collaborative effort,” she said.
Tillman encouraged students to learn the difference between a pet dog, therapy dog and service dog, and the school conducts daily announcements about Art, including how old he is, how long he’s been in training and when students can and can’t pet him.
“It’s been a really great learning opportunity for our whole school, and what’s come out of it is they know this is something that’s going to help this little boy learn and be successful at school,” Greenstein said.
Art has given so much to Tommy in terms of helping with his school and personal life; he’s also provided the Schiller family a new one.
“We can go to Kirkwood Park and have a nice time without Tommy jumping in lake. We can go to a fair and have a nice time as a family. Art has allowed us to do that,” Maura said.
In addition to Tommy and Maura, the Schillers are comprised of husband Tom, daughter Elise, 13, who also is special needs and visually and hearing impaired, and Timmy, 6.
Maura said if one of Tommy's siblings is having a bad day, they sometimes ask if Art can put his muzzle in their laps. Timmy told Maura that Art makes the whole family feel better and Maura agrees.
“After we got Art, as a family we finally had some calm and some peace. That’s what Art brought to our family. He finally gave us some peace,” Maura said.
Unlike the therapists that will go in and out of Tommy’s life as he grows up, Art will offer consistency and always be there to calm him down. He’ll help mitigate meltdowns, ensure a sound night’s rest and boost Tommy’s social skills.
A boy and his dog is a classic adorable sight. When strangers look at Tommy and Art, they have no idea that they’re witnessing so much more.
-Patch Editor Lindsay Toler contributed to this report.