Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Sean, who had problems with life because he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Then he found a loving service dog named Sophia, who changed his life.
Now Sean and Sophia, who are inseparable, are going to go to school together every day.
It sounds like something out of a children’s book, but the story is real.
Sean and Sophia will board a special school bus Tuesday morning and head to for the first day of school.
It’s a day for which Sean and Sophia have practiced, making trial runs through the school to ensure a smooth transition.
Sean’s mother, Jen Forsyth, said her son and his service dog have done “fantastic.”
Asperger's Syndrome is a type of autism in which children often have trouble with social situations and experience sensory issues.
The dog’s trainer, Jim Wagner of Perfect Fit Canines, was on hand Monday morning to “proof” the dog. That means he walked the dog through all the areas in which Sean might travel—classrooms, the gymnasium, cafeteria and music room.
Wagner and his wife Susan created Perfect Fit Canines to work with service dogs and children and young adults with autism.
Sophia has been trained to “dig in” and stop Sean from going somewhere he is not allowed to go.
“She is trained to keep him from bolting,” Wagner said. “Sean is a bolter.”
Jen Forsyth explained that Sean knows rules like not crossing a road until you look both ways.
“He can verbally tell you,” she said. “But when it comes time to put it in action, it doesn’t happen.”
Sean also has had problems in the past with meltdowns that can last hours. Since Sophia joined the family, the meltdowns are over in minutes, she said.
Sean and Sophia began training together in early 2011 and Sophia came home with the family that September.
“Since that time we haven’t had a single two-hour meltdown, Sophia runs over and kisses Sean’s hands or face, and his agitation eases almost immediately,” Jen wrote in her blog.
“Sean instinctively hugs Sophia when he’s nervous or buries his face in her back when sensory issues bother him. His social skills are beginning to improve because kids come up to him now to ask about the dog.”
Jen realizes there will be plenty of questions and concerns about having a dog at school.
Wagner and trainer Jeff Woods, president of Misty Pines Dog Park in Franklin Park Borough, have offered to come to the school for the first few days to ensure a smooth transition and answer questions.
“Our people have gone out of their way, and they want all sides to be comfortable,” Jen said.
Wagner said Sophia has done “excellently”.
“There have been absolutely no problems whatsoever,” Wagner said. “Sophia is ready to meet any obstacle."
The dog will be tethered to Sean throughout the day and he is responsible for taking Sophia outside to a grassy area near the dumpsters for bathroom breaks.
Cleaning up after the dog is his responsibility also.
“Sean has done extremely well,” Wagner continued. “He could be a trainer . . . He knows all the commands.”
“The only thing we haven’t proofed for is the 412 students who will be here tomorrow,” Wagner said on Monday.
Although other children might want to play with and pet Sophia, she will be wearing “Do Not Pet” patches on her service vest.
Sean attended a robotics camp this summer at the Sarah Heinz House and a hundred kids there wanted to pet Sophia.
“That’s when the patches went on,” Jen said.
The Forsyths have advocated for Sean to be able to bring the dog to school since last year. They found out on June 11 that Sophia’s presence at school was approved.
Jennifer C. Jaff, an attorney and founder of Advocacy for Patients With Chronic Illnesses advocated for them, Jen said.
Asked if she considers allowing a service dog into the school to be a ground-breaking change, Jen said no.
“I see it as doing whatever is needed to help my son.”
The Forsyth family founded the Sean & Sophia Foundation that initially focused on fundraising to help with the high cost of purchasing a trained service dog.
The foundation’s emphasis is moving toward advocacy now.
“It’s become a lot of advocacy and we’re here to help anyone,” she said.
Jen is working on a second master’s degree—this one will be in autism spectrum disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from California University in English and journalism in 1999 and an MBA from the University of Phoenix in 2009.
“If I don’t use everything I have learned to help others,” Jen said, “then I’m not doing my job.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Sophia as a therapy dog—she is a service dog.