Emma Caillier is like most typical 15-year-old teenagers. A freshman at Auburn Mountainview High School she wishes for strong friendships, is loyal and loves connecting with and helping young children. Though vibrantly creative, Emma’s combined diagnoses of Autism, ADHD, and Anxiety has made life feel impossible on more days than not. That is why the Caillier family has sought out an autism service dog to provide Emma an emotional anchor.
Living with an Invisible Disability
As children, both Emma and her younger brother Wil both received this dual diagnosis. While the initial diagnosis saw an increase in assistance for Wil, and overall for the family, Emma saw minimal success in the therapeutic options tried over the years to assist her. Her hyper-awareness and need for sensory feedback, matched with her intense emotions became Emma’s nemesis as she began to spiral out of control and into conflict.
“Emma has struggled increasingly” her mother, Michele, shared. “Despite accommodations provided in the school district, her grades dropped significantly, she’s experienced inconsistent friendships and support and became unable to accomplish desired tasks. We have watched her anxiety increase and her abilities decrease.”
The Cailliers had learned of Autism Service Dogs of America several years ago through a client family of their preschool, Busy Bee Preschool. At the time, however, they “realized the cost of two children on the spectrum, we felt a bit out of our depth.”
Utilizing their educational background, that has a significant focus on diversity and special needs, Emma’s parents continued their efforts with available. They found particular assistance through Seattle Children’s Autism and Children’s Therapy Center in Kent. Having the flexibility to attend field trips, sports events, and PTA events, the Cailliers became better advocates for both children through the school district and within the community. They also joined the family theatre group ‘Heavier than Air’ to encourage social and public engagement, “we’re not talented in this area, but it was a good move for all three of our children and allowed significant time as a family,” said Michele.
As Emma’s brother, Wil, improved she, unfortunately, did not. A significant challenge of life for someone with high-functioning autism is that Emma struggles with what is often termed an “invisible disability.” This frequently results in a lack of understanding or support from those she engages with. Beyond academic struggles, Emma often battles anxiety symptoms in the nurse’s office or library.
“After multiple years at Rainier Middle School where Emma truly plummeted with anxiety, inconsistent support, and poor grades, we were very engaged in finding successful support at [AMHS] and began the conversation of increasing accommodations early,” shared Michele.
After her first few months at AMHS, the Cailliers attended parent/teacher conferences. The family had just been through a stressful month with Emma’s Grandfather being in the ICU, which notably impacted her. During the conference, one of the counselors suggested they connect with a family whose teen utilized a service dog while attending the school.
Hope in an Autism Service Dog
Recognizing that an Autism service dog was the best option for Emma, the Cailliers did thorough research on service dogs and their options. Self-training a service dog, a potential option was initially suggested by the ASDA organization as they recognized Emma’s age and that the issues the dog would assist are very pressing. Ultimately due to the extensive training needs of the dog and Emma’s struggle to attend to tasks, they decided to go through ASDA.
ASDA is a Tualatin, Oregon based nonprofit organization that raises dogs from 8 weeks of age and custom trains them for support of children on the autism spectrum. The service dogs offer autistic children a host of benefits. They assist children on the autism spectrum with everything from completing daily tasks to preventing wandering to acting as a calming presence during overwhelming situations. The two primary goals for Emma’s service dog are to reduce her anxiety and serve as a safety support. In addition, the Cailliers anticipate a service dog will increase opportunities to develop Emma’s social skills with others. “Emma has withdrawn significantly over the past few years, particularly as folks are not fully aware of her struggles [or] abilities, and she is often alone with her anxiety.”
Even after the Cailliers have begun their partnership with ASDA, Emma must wait for the training and matching of her service dog, which typically “takes 12 to 18 months,” said Michele. “It is very likely that we may wait longer because we need a hypoallergenic dog” for Emma.
When matching dogs, ASDA works with reputable local breeders. Often, however, there are additional fees for procuring a dog, with fewer resources and higher demand for hypoallergenic dogs. This means that for Emma, “we do not yet know which class of dog will be a match [and] will likely not know until a few weeks prior to the placement.”
According to the ASDA website, “ASDA sets a donation goal of $13,500 for every approved family. It may sound like a big number, but so far, all of our families have been able to reach their goal through fundraising efforts”. The website goes on to say, “the full cost to breed, raise and train an ASDA service dog is over $20,000. The Cailliers must provide this initial donation before ASDA will begin the process of training a service dog for Emma.
Raising Funds for Emma’s Service Dog
In late February a GoFundMe was set up to help raise funds for the initial needed donation. With a remaining $5,400 to raise, the Cailliers are working within the community to host a Cinco De Mayo Fiesta volleyball clinic and silent auction at AMHS.
Two-Time Olympic Volleyball Medalist Courtney Thompson will host the clinic and address participants. Thompson, a former player of Emma’s father Bil, was quick to agree to assist. “I started to explain what we were doing and the need for Emma and she, without hesitation, said, “I’m in!”
“It is humbling to feel the support of the volleyball community for this event.” Bil continued, ”Every day people are offering their help. I’ve always felt volleyball was this incredible game that is just a really good reason for passionate people to get together. “
Numerous local organizations, including the Seattle Seahawks NFL football team, have donated items for the event’s silent auction. These include an autographed Doug Baldwin mini Seahawks helmet, Nike Gift Basket, an autographed Bobby Wagner football, Seattle Mariners memorabilia, a coffee basket from Jump Start Espresso in Federal Way and a certificate for golf for three plus two golf cart rentals at the Meridian Valley Country Club in Kent. Auction items are being added regularly.
Organizers still seek donations—for the silent auction and for providing food, beverages, and other items associated with the bake sale and the nacho bar.
For more information, to donate goods or money, and for registration for the Courtney Thompson-hosted volleyball clinic, which costs $100 per child, go to “Anchor 4 Em” on Facebook, #anchor4em.
For auction information, you can also contact Desirae Bamba [email protected] or 253-288-1842, and for additional volleyball clinic information contact Bil Caillier 253-288-1842.