On the small island of Jersey, near the northern coast of France, a 6-year-old boy named Jamie Brinco lives with his parents, Jaime and Sandra, and attends Mont à l’Abbé School. Jamie was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and, when they couldn’t find the support they were looking for close to home, his parents turned to an agency in their native country of Portugal to help their son get a service dog.
The Portuguese Assistance Dog Association provided Jamie with a Portuguese water dog puppy named Freddie in June of 2018. Portuguese water dogs make great autism assistance dogs due to their medium size (for portability), good temperament, trainability, and drive to do a job.
Rui Alves, the association’s lead trainer, made the introductions and has begun helping the family with the process of training Freddie.
Freddie’s main job is to support Jamie in social situations and help him feel more comfortable. The plan is to allow Freddie to grow up with Jamie so that he becomes more attached to the family and is able to do his job as a support animal better.
Along the way, Freddie will go through three stages of training. For the first three to six months, he’ll be focusing on interacting properly with the family and learning general obedience commands. Next, he will learn more specific commands and focus more exclusively on working with Jamie. In the third phase, which may take up to 15 months, Freddie will be trained to help Jamie in specific social and public situations.
“I know my son is capable of learning and developing but he needs better support and we hope this [the assistant dog] will help him,” says Sandra. “Myself and my husband have received very little support from the local services and it is very frustrating for us as we feel Jamie is capable of so much more.”
Jersey has improved its autism services in recent years, but due to the small size of the island, things can be “hit or miss,” according to Philip Le Claire, executive director of Autism Jersey. A lack of finances, training, and staff, as well as a flawed diagnosis process, means people with autism may have a difficult time getting the accommodations they need in school and life.
Jamie is believed to be the first person in Jersey ever to own a service dog.
Autism Jersey eagerly awaits the results of Freddie’s training. Le Claire fears that a dog would provide the opposite of the consistency a child with autism is likely to need, but he hopes Freddie is able to help Jamie deal with social situations. Perhaps one day there will be many more autism service dogs on this tiny island helping other people like Jamie get the support they need to be more comfortable in their daily lives.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?