Cary teen with autism raises money to train with service dog

snagem@newsobserver.com swolford@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

— When Marisa Smith gets home from school, where she struggles to form relationships with classmates, she has five furry friends waiting for her. She feeds, snuggles and mimics the sounds of her pet Chihuahuas.

Fifteen-year-old Marisa, diagnosed with autism two years ago, also cares for three sugar gliders, tiny marsupials she carries around her family’s Cary home.

Her pets are her solace – a break from stressful days at school at West Lake Middle in Apex.

“Dealing with people is hard,” Marisa said. “They’re not exactly as understanding as animals.”

Now Marisa and her parents, John and Laurie Smith, hope to add one more pet to the family: a service dog that could go to school with Marisa, soothe her in times of discomfort and help keep her safe if she wanders away.

The family was in the process of trying to raise $13,000 for an autism service dog through 4 Paws For Ability when they got a phone call from the Ohio-based group. A dog was available, and the $6,000 they had raised so far would cover the cost.

The Smiths are trying to raise an additional $2,000 to cover travel and hotel expenses so Marisa and her mother can spend two weeks in Ohio in December to train with the dog. They set up an account on gofundme.com, a website that allows people to donate money to projects and causes.

The group matches about 100 dogs a year with children with disabilities, said Whitney Hitt, media relations director for 4 Paws For Ability.

For kids with autism, service dogs can interrupt negative behaviors and shorten a “meltdown,” Hitt said.

“Some dogs would shy away from a child having a meltdown,” she said. “Our dogs are trained to go toward them.”

The 4 Paws dogs often begin training at a young age and are socialized with the help of college students in Ohio, Hitt said. Then they undergo basic obedience training by prison inmates before they begin more serious sessions at the group’s training facility.

It costs about $22,000 to raise and train a service dog, Hitt said. The group asks families to raise the money.

The Smiths were in the midst of an online fundraising campaign when they found out a dog was available.

For the Smith family, a service dog could be life-changing. Marisa’s parents always worry about her safety. She once wandered away from her school campus.

“That will give her a little more independence, and us a little more ‘us’ time, which we haven’t had, ever,” said John Smith, 51.

Marisa was born with Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal cord. She has had two brain surgeries, numerous hospital stays and annual rounds of tests.

While developmental delays were apparent early, Marisa was not diagnosed with autism until she was 13, said Laurie Smith, 46.

Now the teen, who is in eighth grade, functions academically at an elementary school level, according to her mother.

“Middle school is hard enough for a typical child,” Laurie Smith said. “She doesn’t know how to make a friend or keep a friend. That’s all she really wants, but she doesn’t know how to do it.”

The Smiths don’t know yet what kind of service dog Marisa will get, but it’s sure to be a friend – a companion at school and at home, where one of her favorite pastimes is drawing pictures of animals.

In school recently, Marisa wrote a journal entry: “People are fools,” she wrote. “How could they ever know what it’s like to be different. To feel lost and alone, with no one there but yourself.”

But soon, she’ll have a new dog to keep her company.

Nagem: 919-460-2605; Twitter: @BySarahNagem

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