Allister Dittman is inquisitive, caring and loving toward his 2-year-old sister, Fara. He likes to help out around the house and enjoys riding his Strider bicycle.
But the 4-year-old boy from Olathe had also been struggling. He has a genetic disorder called Noonan syndrome as well as a mild autism spectrum disorder and some sensory sensitivity. So he sometimes has trouble controlling his emotions, switching activities or being in noisy, crowded areas.
All of that changed when he met Cooper Logan.
Cooper is an autism therapy dog at Britain Development at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission. The 4-year-old poodle has been trained to catch onto people’s emotions and provide comfort and support.
April is Autism Awareness Month, so we caught up with Cooper and his handler to learn about how he helps children with autism.
“Cooper seems to provide this blanket of calm, just a buffer zone for Allister,” said Brian Dittman, his father. “When he gets a little overstimulated, he can see Cooper there. He doesn’t have to do much other than be present and you can tell that Allister feels more comfortable.”
‘Night and day change’ for Allister
Allister first met Cooper last summer, shortly after he enrolled at Britain Development. He was throwing a fit one day when his teacher, out of desperation, brought in Cooper and his handler, Ann Wheeler.
“My wife said it was like a light switch just flipped and he was fine,” Brian Dittman said of Vanessa Dittman’s observations when Allister first met Cooper in music class. “It was like instant calm from full-on tantrum.”
At the center, staff are helping Allister get socialized and able to maintain composure in the classroom. Cooper acts like a buffer for Allister, distracting his emotions from the task at hand, he said.
“Allister has a little bit of sensitivity to sound, and all the activity in there can be overwhelming,” Brian Dittman said. “Cooper’s presence kind of made music class a night-and-day change for him, just a calming effect.”
A service dog with Paws 4 Autism, Cooper was trained to be with one family. Wheeler, who volunteers for Paws 4 Autism, said they quickly saw that Cooper was a social butterfly, so they trained him to help children with autism. He underwent 150 hours of training by six months of age. He is “hypoallergenic, big and very smart,” she added.
“He’s so awesome here; he’s so great with so many different kids,” Wheeler said. “I have seen increases in social behavior; I’ve seen increases in language. But I’ve seen children mainly want to participate.”
Cooper instinctively knows how to help the children at the center by providing motivation for difficult tasks, helping with transitions between activities and modeling simple instructions (like sit). He’s also a therapeutic tool because children can use him to work on pulling to stand or incorporate him into functional play.
“In therapy, it’s just a distraction,” Wheeler said, adding that Cooper intervenes to help children get through a meltdowns or accomplish a task in occupational therapy.
Brian Dittman said he and his wife have been thrilled to watch their son with Cooper.
“We hear about Cooper a lot at home; Cooper’s made such a difference in him that we’re considering getting a dog for Allister through the program,” Brian Dittman said. “We’re considering that and want to look into that a little bit more because we think it makes a positive difference in his life.”