GARFIELD RIDGE — When 5-year-old Andy Reyes wandered out of his home last summer, he wasn't even aware he was lost. He didn't know his name, address or his parents' names.
While his family desperately searched for him in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood and his mother, Fabiola Benitez, called the police, Andy found his way into a nearby Walgreens — dazed, and unaware of the distressing situation.
"He wasn't even crying," Benitez said. "It's scary to think that he didn't realize that he's missing. A stranger could've grabbed him and that would've been it."
Andy was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in America are on the autism spectrum.
In Andy's case, he is unable to communicate his needs, perceive danger or function independently.
Cristy Calderon, an Autism Behavior and Childhood consultant, has worked with the family for almost three years.
"When we first started with Andy, his perception of safety was non-existent," Calderon said. "Most children on the autism spectrum just do what they're interested in, they don't feel that there's anything dangerous."
The 2015 incident was the first time that Andy wandered out of his home and went missing for hours.
"We had safety locks, but Andy ripped it off," she said. "So we said, this is never going to happen again. We have to get a service dog or something that is going to help us."
However, their options were limited between paying as high as $13,000 for a trained dog, or receiving one for free at the cost of a two-year waiting list.
"I thought this was unattainable, that this was never going to happen," Andy's mom said.
That was until a friend referred Benitez to VIP Service Dog Foundation. Based in Oswego, Ill., the organization provides service dogs to people with disabilities. After learning that their parent-based dog training program allows for a lower cost — $3,000 — Benitez knew she could make it happen.
Two months later, at a training session, Andy met a young Irish setter and standard poodle mix named Corky.
"Andy really enjoyed holding onto Corky and having Corky sit next to him. At that moment, we knew they were telling us this was a match," she said.
For the past nine months, Benitez has worked as a full-time mother of two and a service dog trainer. Under her supervision, Corky passed the test with VIP Service Dog Foundation to become a certified service dog in May.
At home, Corky, who turned one in March, is like any other puppy. He greets strangers with enthusiasm, loves to be pet, and always wants to play with people or the family's other non-service dog.
"But once he puts that vest on, he changes," she said. "When Andy experiences a sensory overload, Corky is trained to get on top of him and that pressure allows Andy to settle down. The other one is safety, which is probably Corky's biggest task."
As long as Andy's outside the house, he is tethered to Corky, who is trained to stay close to the family even when the 5-year-old tugs strongly and tries to run away.
"For us, it's a peace of mind. That when we go out, he’s going to be safe," she said.
This peace of mind also extends to the family's home life.
"We now have a security system that beeps when a door opens, but Corky will tell me whenever someone or Andy is by the door," she said.
According to Cristy Calderon, therapy dogs are still relatively new in the autism community.
"We've always thought about dogs helping people who are blind or deaf," she said. "Now people are training dogs with people with autism to be another shield of protection. Corky has definitely helped Andy perceive more of his environment."
Andy and Corky may still be growing in their relationship, but Benitez is hopeful that Corky will help her son flourish more independently as a child.
"He will always have Corky if he needs him. And if he doesn't in the future, that's OK," she said. "Corky will still be a family member. He will just get to retire and be a dog 24/7."
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