CHICAGO -- They're called man's best friend, but dogs may also hold the key to reaching children with autism.
At the Hanson Center in Burr Ridge, a 12-acre recreational facity for people with disabilities, dogs that have been rescued now appear to be doing the same for families there.
Autism inhibits young Claire's speech, and her world was a mystery until her retriever, Miko, came into her life.
The family said Miko has brought things out in Claire that they'd always hoped for.
While half of autistic people do not develop a full spectrum of speech, Claire is communicating more and is gaining confidence.
"Ever since Miko came into our lives a couple of years ago, we've really noticed that he's helped her communication and social skills," Claire's mother said.
Miko's calming ways have eased the tantrums that are typical with autism.
"Like she can get anxious and everything and get upset about things, and the dog will come over and she will pet him, and it's a natural, calming force for her," Claire's mother said.
The bond between Miko and Claire is undeniable.
"It's just kind of amazing. It's a weird thing. He won't eat until she's home from school," her mother said.
Miko is not alone in his ability to sense what humans can't. Hanson Center trainer Jack Giambrone said he's watched many rescued dogs become life-savers.
"So if a 6-year-old is missing, non-verbal, the police could actually walk right past her if she's hiding. You have no way of knowing, but you can't hide from a dog," Giambrone said.
For Beth Terrill, it's Coco who has helped her turn a life with autism into a life with independence.
"When I be sad or angry or cry or someone makes me angry, he comes to me and just relax and makes me calm down and licks me to death and I like that a lot," Beth said.
While social interaction is difficult with the disorder, dogs are a natural at breaking the ice.
"People don't understand about people with disabilities and they, like, treat us different, but now with Coco, they go 'OK, there's a dog with her,'" Beth said.
Claire's parents agree, and they said the social aspect the dogs provide is enormous. They said they hoped Miko will give Claire more freedom.
"Hopefully next year, next summer, Miko and Claire can walk into town together and go to the snack shop," Claire's mother said.
Miko already gives the family peace of mind, knowing that he's trained to find Claire, even when she can't find her way.
The need for dogs like Miko is great, especially with the growing number of children with autism, and their currently is a waiting list for the dogs at the Hanson Center.
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