By Marissa Bond
The Las Cruces Bulletin
It is her grin that leaps out from the fliers – broad, infectious, a 10-year-old’s embrace of the world.
Mia Binns’ smile is part of her request, searching out from frill-edged pages tacked to bulletin boards, for help from the community, from those who know her and those who do not. Mia has autism spectrum disorder, and is raising funds for a service dog specially trained for her needs.
A segment on the news gave Mia’s mother, Christina Binns, the idea.
It was Christmastime, and a story was running about how a mall Santa, afraid of a autistic girl’s pitbull service dog, didn’t want her to bring it close for a photo. It was a sad story, a child crying at Yuletide, but it was the first time Binns heard about service dogs being beneficial for people with autism.
“I saw this story, and it just sparked something in me,” Christina Binns said.
She started researching service dogs for children with autism.
Unlike service dogs which help with physical tasks, service dogs for children with autism provide emotional support. People with autism spectrum disorders are unable to filter sensory information, and can become overstimulated by the flood of sensory input they experience.
A service dog can serve as a place to focus the handler’s attention when out in public, so the stimuli do not become overwhelming. A service dog can also interrupt sensory overload or alert the handler when he or she is doing repetitive behaviors, called stimming, which can sometimes be harmful.
“What this dog is going to provide to my daughter in particular is emotional support,” Binns said. “My daughter has mental disabilities. She has a low IQ, she has ADHD and she has autism. She displays emotional highs and lows, she has trouble regulating her emotions, socializing – that’s all probably the biggest thing with autistic children. They have trouble socializing with other people.
“She is social, she likes to be around people, but she has a hard time interacting with them. I think the dog will be the bridge between interacting with other kids her age and provide her that constant companion where she feels – I mean, she knows she’s different, so for her to feel that she belongs somewhere, that she has something of her own, so she won’t feel so different.”
Larger dogs are preferred as autistic service animals. While this is not necessary for Mia, some autistic children may take off running, unaware of dangers such as traffic. To protect the child, he or she may be tethered to the animal, and the dog may keep the child from running or slow him or her down. Some autistic children are also comforted by pressure on their bodies when overstimulated, such as with a weighted or tightly wrapped blanket. A large dog can be present to provide that comforting pressure.
A service dog can also help Mia become more independent, Binns said.
“She’s slowly learning, I’m allowing her to do more things by herself, but I’m paranoid, I watch her do a lot of things, and I think having the dog will allow her to become more confident in herself and independent.”
The only hurdle was the price.
Binns said she didn’t know how much a service dog would cost when she first started researching them. Though the dogs are expensive, American Service Dogs, 725 S. Solano Drive, uses a business model that both makes service dogs more affordable for those who need them while reducing the number of dogs in the shelter.
Jared Latham, lead trainer and facility manager for American Service Dogs, said the company restructured last year in order to better serve the needs of the community – those with two and four legs. While the average cost of a service dog across the country is $20,000, by partnering with area animal rescues and reimagining their training process, American Service Dogs has been able to cut the average price down to about $4,000.
Rather than purchasing a purebred dog and training it before trying to find it a family, Latham, a combat veteran whose training experience includes four years as part of the Department of Defense Working Dog Program, combs through local shelters for dogs who have the right personality and temperament for service work. The dog is then paired with the owner, and Latham trains the owner and family on how to train the dog.
“We don’t just train the dog and give it to a family,” Latham said. “We incorporate the whole family, train the whole family on how to handle and manipulate the dog.
“What that does is cut down costs, because I’m only working with the family once a week. We train the dog for the first couple of months, and then it is up to the family. We give them all the tools necessary to train that dog.”
Even though the pricing model through American Service Dogs was much more approachable than elsewhere, the $4,000 was a daunting amount. Binns decided to reach out to the community for help as she worked to pull the funds together.
“There’s research showing that it works,” Binns said. “And besides, if there was even a five percent chance that this could help your child – wouldn’t you do everything possible to help your child? I mean, that’s not even a question you ask.”
Binns said they have done a lot of footwork, posting flyers in veterinary offices, gyms and other public spaces, as well as sharing on Facebook. She said most of the contributions that have helped them secure the down payment came through friends and family who heard about the fundraiser through social media. The support from friends and family have just passed the half-way mark, which allowed the Binns family to put down payment on a dog for Mia and begin the training process.
She has worked with Tucker, a purebred Portuguese Water Dog that was a shelter rescue dog.
Binns said the service dog can make a difference for her whole family.
“I have a hard time taking her to certain restaurants or just shopping because she just gets distracted very easily with other things going on and she throws fits and people don’t understand,” she said.
“And when I was reading these stories about people who have these dogs with their children, it just opened up a whole new world because now they are able to go to church – because you know you have to be quiet at church, and the dog keeps the child calm so they can go to church, they can go shopping, to the mall – you can do so many things now, whereas before you were kind of a prisoner in your own home.”
Binns said she hopes that the fundraiser will help other families with autistic children learn about the potential benefits a service dog may provide.
“Maybe other families will see this and think, ‘Maybe this will help my child, too,’” Binns said. “Because I wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t seen it. I think getting this information out there can really help. Sometimes you just feel so isolated, you just don’t know what to do.”
For more information on Mia Binns’ service dog fundraiser, visit her GoFundMe site at http://gofundme.com/wsxa9g8. For more information on American Service Dogs, call 323-1727 or visit www.americanservicedogs.us.
Marissa Bond can be reached at 680-1845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.