EATONTOWN, NJ – There’s been plenty in the news about the increasing prevalence of autism in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) observed a 15% increase in the pervasiveness of autism across the US in just two years, as the condition jumped from a rate of 1 in 68 children to 1 in 59. Not only that, but a further CDC study in 2019 strongly suggests that autistic spectrum disorder “is more prevalent than indicated by the latest 1 in 59 CDC estimate.”
These headline figures help people to understand the increasing incidence of autism but do little to explain how hard it can be for autistic children to thrive in a non-autistic world. Indeed, for many ‘thriving’ is out of the question – it’s more a matter of survival.
20-year-old Klaire is the perfect example. She is a bright, loving young person who wants to become an art therapist so that she can help people that are like herself. Like many young people her age, she loves animals, babies, corny jokes and spending time with her family and friends. Yet, Klaire has been plunged into severe anxiety and depression as a result of life-long experiences of exclusion and bullying from peers that only see her as weird, or strange – not an individual with a neurological condition.
Klaire comments: “I’m at the higher end of the spectrum, so a lot of people look at me like, ‘You don’t have autism, do you?’ Like, I should have an autism face! I got pointed out by some of the other kids; I didn’t have many friends. I got picked on almost all the time. I would tell the teachers about the bullying but they did nothing. I’ve had a difficult time with some of the adults in school too. It’s been really tough.”
Such instances of young people suffering are far from rare. Despite her condition, Klaire has so much to give to the world. She is a talented creative writer whose work has been published in her high school annual magazine. Her artwork has been shown at the Guild of Creative Art in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, where she is a member. She makes jewelry and loves photography. Additionally, she has a gift for flower arranging and will be attending a vocational high school to become a florist while she continues her education to become an art therapist.
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Klaire is passionate about helping others and is always moved to help people or animals that are in distress. She’s now in her 10th year as a Girl Scout and has been one of the top ten cookie sellers for the past five years. One year, she even sold enough cookies to pay for her entire summer camp tuition.
In many ways, Klaire has been a typical teenager and still is, cognitively. Her room is a mess. She finds loopholes in instructions in order to get her own way. Her mother is always finding empty cartons in the refrigerator.
But life isn’t easy for Klaire. Things that many people take for granted can leave her feeling overwhelmed and frightened. Unexpected physical contact. Crowds. Ceiling fans. She feels frustrated when someone interrupts her when she is speaking. She can’t follow multistep instructions and has erratic memory retrieval. She needs supervision in all unstructured environments.
A supportive group of friends could do much to help Klaire to process her experiences of the world. Instead, she has been called names, tripped up, and had leaves and dirt thrown at her during recess. Entire groups of young people move away from her when she sits at a table or on the bleachers. She has been booed in gym and, one year, her entire class made disgruntled noises when the teacher started to sing her the happy birthday song. Feeling worthy, important, and valuable after an entire childhood of such treatment is all but impossible.
As Klaire points out: “Being treated that way made me feel kind of lonely. Isolated. I felt like I wasn’t even worth it. Because of that, I just sat at the peanut-free table where nobody would sit, at all. Eventually, it got to a point where I would just eat in classrooms with a teacher.”
Thankfully, one 501(c)3 non-profit organization – Merlin’s Kids – wants to help Klaire. The company pairs young people with autism with service animals. In Klaire’s case, a service dog would help to calm her anxiety and quell the sense of unworthiness and loneliness that a lifetime of negative treatment has given rise to.
Klaire has high-functioning autism (one of various sub-categories on the autism spectrum) and is capable of living independently, with help. Having her own service dog would play a key role in enabling this. Research has shown that spending one-on-one time with a dog can significantly reduce loneliness and stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, which contributes to wellbeing and happiness.
Perhaps most interestingly, service dogs can detect an increase in cortisol in humans, which allows them to know when their human is becoming stressed. They can then provide calming interventions, such as deep pressure. For young people like Klaire, a canine companion can make an incredible difference.
Klaire comments: “It’s not that I just want a service dog – I need him. When you face challenges in life, you need to have someone to be around. When you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. That’s why a service dog is so important.”
Training and placing a service dog, however, is far from cheap. Klaire will need to raise $15,500 in order to benefit from an appropriately trained service dog. The amount donated, thus far, is approximately $2,500. Klaire’s family is working with Merlin’s Kids to raise the necessary funds, as well as running a Go Fund Me campaign. Their goal is to give Klaire as much of a chance to thrive as a non-autistic young person enjoys, giving her the chance that she needs to thrive in a non-autistic world.
To find out more and help Klaire succeed, please contact [email protected], quoting ‘Klaire C’ or donate at https://gofund.me/143eb41a. You can, also, mail a check or money order payable to Merlin’s Kids, P.O. Box 21, Midland Park, NJ 07432 with the memo of “In honor of Klaire C.” All donations are tax deductible.