Las Cruces mother raising money to obtain service dog for autistic son

Las Cruces mother raising money to obtain service dog for autistic son


Service dog picture

Bulletin photo by Billy Huntsman
Derek, left, comforts his brother, John David, right, after a meltdown.Derek has high-functioning autism, while John David has low-functioning, and is nonverbal. Their mother, Donna Kulpa, is crowdfunding in order to get John David a service dog to help with his autism.

John David Kulpa, 8, was playing soccer when he saw his father pull into the parking lot beside the field. This sight sent him into what his mother, Donna Kulpa, called “a meltdown.”

“Nobody knew that he had autism,” Kulpa said.

John David’s is low-functioning autism.

“He says about 25 words,” his mother said. “He gets really overwhelmed in different environments.”
Loud sounds, such as hand dryers and flushing toilets, cause him to panic, Kulpa said.

“That’s our normal,” Kulpa said. “We always get an audience.”

She said John David even needs monitoring in the home. When she makes pasta for dinner, she stores the leftovers in Tupperware and wraps the containers in grocery bags in the refrigerator to hide them from John David because “it’s almost like he doesn’t know when to stop eating or drinking.”

The event at the soccer field, which included the 4’2’’ John David repeatedly kicking his 4’11’’ mother in the chest and accidentally breaking one of her fingers, compelled Donna to start looking for a service animal for her son.
“John David loves dogs,” Kulpa said.

On average, however, autistic-support dogs range anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 nationwide, said Jared Latham, manager at American Service Dogs, a Las Cruces-based dog-training facility.

Latham said his costs in training an autism-support dog adds up to about $4,000.

To raise this money, American Service Dogs helped Donna in setting up a crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring. As of Aug. 11, the campaign had raised a little more than $800 of a $5,000 goal. (The difference in Latham’s fees and the goal goes toward miscellaneous costs involved in training, not website fees.)

There are four primary services an autism-support dog could render to John David.

Kulpa said John David is a “runaway risk.” A service dog could help by being “tethered” to John David, meaning the two would be tied together like mountain climbers, so the dog could bring John David back beside his mother.
“A lot of (people) with autism are really texture-oriented,” said Latham, who has worked with Donna in searching for a service dog for the past two years.

This means autism-support dogs are typically “fluffier”— St. Bernards, golden retrievers, Portuguese water dogs,” Latham said. A sensation such as feeling soft fur often calms down autistic people when they have meltdowns, said Latham, who is also the parent of an autistic child.

Also, autism-support dogs are often larger and heavier — more than 70 pounds, Latham said.

“We teach (the dogs) deep-pressure therapy, which works really well for autistic (people),” Latham said, going on to mention additional weighted devices used by autistic people for therapeutic reasons: weighted jackets, weighted blankets.

Autistic-support dogs also need to be particularly bold, Latham said, and not get frightened when their owners have meltdowns. In such situations it is not uncommon for the owner to harm the dog, such as biting and hitting, so the dog needs to have a strong commitment to its owner.

The combination of the weight and texture of an autistic-support dog can quickly calm down an autistic person during a meltdown.

Finally, for people with low-functioning autism who are nonverbal, such as John David, the dog can help them come out of their shell.

“When people would come up and talk to him, they would talk to him about his dog, not about him, because he didn’t want to talk about himself,” said Latham, referring to a past client whom Latham help pair with an autism-support dog.

A service dog could also enable John David to go into public men’s restrooms by himself. Kulpa said without a service dog, no matter how big John David gets, she’ll be too uncomfortable not to take him with her into the women’s restroom.
“If (a service dog) helps 10 percent of the time, that takes pressure off the parent,” said Latham.

Donna has two other children, one of whom also has autism, though the high-functioning kind.
“I wouldn’t want my kids any other way,” Kulpa said.

But a service dog would make life more enjoyable for John David, she said.

Kulpa’s crowdfunding campaign has no time limit. Visit to donate. Also find Donna Kulpa on Facebook.

Billy Huntsman may be reached at or 575-680-1958.


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