The world’s an Oyster for Elizabeth
Support dog Oyster has opened up a whole new world for autistic youngster Elizabeth Gregor.
All toddlers have tantrums but Elizabeth Gregor’s outbursts went well beyond what most parents have to cope with.
The little girl from Guisborough, who was diagnosed as having autism at the age of just two and half, would lie on the floor kicking and screaming and refusing to go outside the house, leaving her mum and dad Marie and Andy exhausted and struggling to cope. Normal family life ground to a halt.
Fast forward eight years and Marie can hardly believe the change in her ‘sweet, loving and happy’ 11-year-old daughter, who now enjoys family holidays in their caravan on the North Yorkshire coast, happily goes for walks without being dragged, and wishes her parents a cheery good morning every day.
And the reason for what Marie describes as this ‘unbelievable’ transformation?
Step forward Oyster, the nine-year-old black Labrador /Golden Retriever cross who came into Elizabeth’s life at the age of four provided and trained by Support Dogs and has since worked a small miracle on the little girl’s behaviour and well-being.
The signs were good from the beginning. “Elizabeth was completely non-verbal and had never spoken when Oyster came to visit us to see if could be a match,” recalls Marie, a former A and E nurse.
“The first word we ever heard Elizabeth say was when Oyster was leaving and she said ’bye’. It was a complete shock.”
Marie had contacted Support Dogs shortly after her daughter’s autism was diagnosed, which followed hard on her also being identified as having a severe form of epilepsy. “It was an horrendous time,” says her mother. “She would refuse to leave the house, lie on the floor screaming and kicking out, and if we took her out she would never stop before crossing the road. We really couldn’t go out.”
When Oyster arrived, Marie started walking around the block with Elizabeth attached to the dog’s harness – which once would have been unthinkable. After a slow start and much perseverance, the transformation began.
Autism assistance dogs are trained to provide safety for the child and reduce stress in social situations. Marie still cannot quite believe Oyster’s transformative effect on Elizabeth. “You hear things about how fantastic these dogs are, but unless you see it in action, you never 100 per cent believe it,” she says.
“If Elizabeth became overwhelmed when we were out, in a noisy restaurant, for example, she would cuddle up with Oyster and he would help calm her down.
“The tantrums started to get less frequent and with Oyster Elizabeth can now just about go anywhere. Her communication has got better, she is now verbal, and she has a lot more understanding. Her sense of humour is brilliant.”
“Elizabeth has gone from a child who would lie on the front step refusing to move and screaming, to a sweet loving and happy little girl who now says ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you.’ Oyster has made a massive difference to our family, and when I look back, Elizabeth is like a different child. I still can’t believe it now!”
Elizabeth now follows Oyster’s example and stops at the kerb rather than running into the road. She has also become more tactile, enjoying cuddles with not just her dog but with her parents and elder brother Daniel, and actually wants to socialise. Happily, her epilepsy is now under control too and it’s many years since she had a seizure.
Holidays are now there to be enjoyed rather than endured, and Elizabeth joined all her family on a memorable trip to Disney World in Florida last year, even loving the long plane flight – unthinkable just a few years back.
Because of Elizabeth’s complex and ongoing health problems, the Gregors don’t plan too far ahead, but enjoy life on a day-to-day basis. Oyster is now nine, and due to retire as an autism assistance dog next year, although she will remain with the family as a much-loved pet.
Because Support Dogs only provide dogs for children with autism up to the age of 10, Elizabeth will not be eligible for a replacement canine companion. But Marie is not worried. “Oyster has done her job. She has given our family more of a life, she has helped Elizabeth stay safe, be able to communicate better, leave the house and face the outside world, and so much more besides; she has been a wonderful friend,” she adds.
“Oyster has already done more than we could have hoped, and I can’t thank Support Dogs enough for transforming Elizabeth’s life.”