For families with children with intellectual disabilities, often, educational resources are hard to come by.
Obviously not every disability is the same, so what resource or advice that worked for one family could very well have a different effect on another. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference in the life of a family with a child who has an intellectual disability is having an open mind and a willingness to try anything to help their son or daughter.
For the Grammer family, one of the best resources they ever received for their daughter Jessica, 18, who has autism, wasn’t a self-help book or tutorial video, but had four legs, drooled and “talked in a Chewbacca voice.”
From the time Jessica was diagnosed with autism at age two until about age 10, she only communicated through sign language and pictures. She struggled with night terrors and would constantly trip over her own feet, which led to constant bruises up and down her arms and legs. She would also have “meltdowns” where she would physically lash out at family and friends.
Her parents, James and Jennifer, were at a loss as to how they could best help their daughter for the wide range of issues she faced.
They learned that people with autism sometimes tend to have fewer behavioral issues when they are on their backs.
“We put her in the pool and it mellowed her out for the rest of the day,” James said. “So we’d use the water as a calming agent on bad days and it ended up being two-fold. She’d calm down and then as she was practicing, she got better.”
Jessica loved to swim because it’s nice to jump in the pool on a hot summer day, but also because, “it’s smooth and mellow for me.”
With Jessica’s new-found love for swimming, the Grammers heard about Special Olympics from a bagger at a supermarket in their home state of Illinois. Jessica jumped right in and latched onto the sport of swimming from day one.
“We were shocked and very scared when we found out that she decided to participate in swimming because she wasn’t a very good swimmer,” Jennifer said.
Swimming started out slow for Jessica, but before the family knew it, she was taking home gold at local competitions and moving up to more advanced strokes and longer races as well.
After four years in Illinois, the Grammers moved to Steelville, Mo., and immediately started Jessica in Special Olympics Missouri’s programming.
Jessica obviously loves the training and competition that Special Olympics offers, but she also enjoys being around other athletes.
“(I like) watching the athletes do their own sport at the competition events… (to) see the athletes’ smiles, having great spirit, having good cheers,” Jessica said.
To James and Jennifer, Special Olympics is all about opportunities
“Special Olympics, to me, means the world,” Jennifer said. “Just because it gives Jessica an outlet to do something that she loves at a competitive level and succeed at it, and be able to go out and make friends with the other competitors.”
The best resource available
While Special Olympics certainly did a lot to help Jessica come out of her shell, James and Jennifer give a lot of credit to a furry four-legged friend who joined the family a few years earlier.
While still living just outside of Chicago, the family would regularly attend autism awareness and fundraiser walks near Lake Michigan. When Jessica was seven years old, the Grammers participated in one of these walks where students from the University of Colorado were on hand. They had several golden retrievers trained as service dogs specifically for people with autism.
“They said, ‘They’re doing therapy with them and they’re getting these kids’ meltdowns under control.’ I looked at those college kids and said, ‘There’s no way a dog is going to take the place of a human,’” James said.
One year later, the family was off to South Dakota to pick up their very first service animal.
Due to the specific tasks, the dogs are trained for and the length and intensity of their training, they are quite expensive.
“The starting price on one was $25,000,” James said. “To say that we didn’t have $25,000 is an understatement.”
Because Jessica was not talking at this point in her life, she had to teach their new family member, Jayme Mack, a bullmastiff and Rottweiler mix, a series of hand signals and touch commands. Jayme was even tethered to Jessica for periods of time to keep Jessica out of the water or putting herself in dangerous situations.
Jayme excelled at breaking Jessica’s meltdowns quickly and efficiently either with a simple touch or by laying on top of her.
“…(She) was able to break a meltdown in under 10 seconds,” James said. “Whatever anxiety or anger that was in them, they touch the dog… whatever’s happening in their life stops and (the anxiety) becomes better. … Whatever (Jessica) is confused or angry about, she gives it to the dog.
“It didn’t matter how long it had been going on, how severe it was… there was something about that dog; she worked unbelievably well.”
Jayme helped Jessica overcome her night terrors as well as an improvement in her physical limitations. Once she was introduced during Jessica’s speech therapy sessions, the family saw an accelerated change in her verbal skills as well.
“She’s probably one of the best dogs I’ve ever known,” Jessica said. “She was great. She was funny. She talked back in a Chewbacca voice (*gargles*)… I could never do it right.
“She was easy to pet and hoped you were okay.”
One of the other benefits of a therapy dog was how it helped Jessica meet new people and work on her socialization skills.
“She won’t necessarily walk up to a group of people if she’s by herself, but if she’s with the dog, she will go up to anybody and introduce herself,” Jennifer said.
After Jessica saw the pay-off for her work with Jayme, she wanted to share her experience with other people as well.
“We ended up going to Easter Seals, Make-A-Wish and then of course the Autism Society; Jayme kind of made the rounds,” James said.
Unfortunately, it was at one of these public events that after Jayme broke another kid’s meltdown, he fell on her and shattered her knee. Because of this, she was unable to work any longer. While they still kept Jayme around because she was just like any other member of the family, they needed to find a replacement service dog, which is where Tank comes in.
Tank joined the family in 2013 and learned on the job from Jayme what it took to help Jessica in her day-to-day life.
“He is Jessica’s walking buddy and sleeping buddy,” Jennifer said. “He calms Jessica and is just there for her at all times. She learns a lot by trying to teach Tank.”
Jessica and Tank learn from one another on a daily basis. One such example of this is by utilizing Tank in her Team Missouri training video blogs.
Jessica is an athlete-leader who has taken classes at SOMO’s Athlete Leadership Programs University (www.SOMO.org/ALPs) in technology and health. While she will compete in the sport of swimming at the upcoming 2018 USA Games in Seattle as part of Team Missouri, she wanted to give back to the team in the form of making sure all of her teammates were training properly, including stretching, eating, exercising and more.
“Originally she wanted Tank to do the videos,” Jennifer said. “You’ve already realized that Tank doesn’t talk, so the video was for her to be able to talk comfortably in the video and have Tank by her side (for support).
“We also realized people might be more willing to listen when there’s a dog or animal involved.”
Sadly, Jayme passed away in November 2017 from cancer. Jessica said she’s dedicating her swimming at the USA Games in memory of Jayme.
With Tank by her side and Jayme in her heart, Jessica will take to the water in a few months and undoubtedly make everyone proud, no matter the outcome.
“If I win or lose… if I was against somebody on another team, I’d still be congratulating that person, because the next time it makes me train harder,” Jessica said.
“Boy, I’m so excited!”
The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:
The faithful dog – why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man’s best friend
Does often at his heels attend.