CONYERS - A 19-year-old suffering from autism and with a history of running away may soon find his life safer with the help of a service dog. A fund raiser is underway to help with the cost of training the dog.
Shirley Christopher of Conyers said her son Casey is very social and smart, but he has a tendency to bolt, running away from home, the school bus stop, or anywhere else he might be.
“He has no concept of danger, people, surroundings; he bolts in front of cars,” she said. “We had a 10-hour manhunt for him the other night. He was sitting in someone’s home eating and watching TV when they came home. He just bolted.”
Casey, who is 6 feet tall and about 160 pounds, suffers from autism, mood disorders, and ADHD. He can’t read or write, but is in the 10th grade at Heritage High School and is in the school’s work program, working inside with the maintenance crew. He also works with his dad, who operates heavy equipment, and can operate some of the equipment himself.
His mother said they follow a rewards program with her son when he works with his dad, and he also has an AngelSense device, which is a GPS and voice-monitoring device designed for individuals with special needs. The device helps, she said, but sometimes it isn’t enough.
“I can watch him, I can talk to him, I can see where he is going on the bus,” Christopher said, “but we never know when he is going to bolt. At home we are actually living in lockdown. I have the windows screwed shut. All doors are nailed shut, because our locks aren’t that great to keep him in.”
When Casey does run, his mom is worried that people he comes in contact with won’t understand.
“He is older and looks like an adult, but mentally he is the sweetest kid and is like a 5- or 6-year-old,” she said. “Sometimes he is fight or flight, which can be dangerous for other individuals, but he doesn’t know why he does it, or he’ll say he is sorry, or he’ll pray. He’s the sweetest kid.”
David Williams, owner of Peach State K9 in Monticello, got involved with Casey after volunteering to use one of his tracking dogs to help look for Casey when he bolted one evening last week. It took Rockdale County Sheriff’s deputies and volunteers 10 hours to track Casey down.
Williams said Casey’s bolting is both putting him in danger and taking needed assets away from the Sheriff’s Office.
“Part of his disability is he doesn’t understand personal property,” Williams said. “He walks right into people’s houses, he runs across the expressway, he jumps in people’s cars, and he will get killed. He has the physical ability to do things that his mind can’t comprehend, and he doesn’t understand how dangerous it is.
“Two weeks ago he ran away four times, and that’s four times that the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office did searches with their dogs and my dogs,” he added. “Every time he runs, it takes at least 10 deputies. They need to be fighting crime, not running around chasing Casey. They understand he can’t help it, but something has to change.”
Williams trains service dogs and said it is amazing what the dogs can do to help autistic children.
“With a child like Casey, you train the dog to willfully disobey,” Williams said. “So he may give him a command to run across a highway, and the dog won’t do it. I train the dog to think for himself, so that when Casey tries to run, that dog is going to lay down and not let him drag him.”
Williams plans on pairing Casey with George, a young St. Bernard that still has some growing to do.
“George is about 120 pounds right now, and he is still young enough that he’s going to gain another 80 pounds, so he’ll be rivaling Casey in weight,” Williams said. “That’s not a dog that he can go running and jumping over fences with. Right now, we’re getting into task training, but just the dog anchor part of it is keeping Casey safe.”
Williams and Christopher put Casey and George together one day last week so they could start getting used to each other. Williams purchased a tether that attached the two together and that Casey could not remove. Christopher said the first meeting was promising.
“This is the first day and it is really working well,” she said. “We took them to the mall and he did awesome. George even got up in one of the new games with him while he played. But I think he is really going to benefit a lot from this, thanks to David.”
“He’s a beautiful kid, and once I put Casey and George together, Casey’s outside of his head right now,” Williams added. “He’s not inside of his head, letting his disability tell him to go run off. He wants to go hang out with his buddy, and I really like how it grounds him.”
Williams and Peach State K9 are willing to give George to Casey once the dog is trained, but the total cost of training George is prohibitive to his mother.
“I can’t afford it,” she said. “I’m struggling with locks and proper windows and stuff in the home. I’m searching for places to help.”
Williams is hoping the community will be able to assist with the costs.
“I’m not a rich man, but I’ve been training dogs for 28 years, and I said I would start a fund raiser for Casey and I will train a service dog for him,” Williams said. “The fund raiser will help pay for the time and the training. It will take hundreds of hours to train that dog to be basically responsible for Casey.
“One of the biggest problems that we have is that a lot of the kids that need service dogs can’t afford them,” he added. “Peach State K9 and I are willing to give away service dogs if I can get support from the public to help cover the cost of training. It takes lots and lots of time, but I don’t mind doing it. I love doing it.”
The effort already has the support of Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett.
“I am hopeful that this group will be able to help Casey get a service dog,” Levett said. “It will be great for Casey to get an animal that is tailored for him and his needs.”
A Gofundme account has been set up to receive donations to assist with the training. It can be found at www.gofundme.com/autism-service-dog-for-casey.