By Judith A. Proffer on Zoe: It's Our Nature
Breaking through the shackles of autism... how a beloved dog touched a boy’s heart and gave him a new life
With cornflower blue eyes wide as saucers and a head of hair with an altogether amusing mind of its own, Wills Price was an easy mark for the long-lashed blonde who captured the little boy’s tender heart. In what became a life altering friendship, she showed him a world he never knew existed – and he in turn wants to show the world that her all too early death was not in vain.
Wills is the son of acclaimed author (Driving with Dead People) Monica Holloway. And the fair haired beauty in his very real love story was Wills’ beloved Cowboy, a golden retriever who touched the life of her autistic companion in a remarkable way. Wills, now 13 years old, is a ball-playing middle-schooler who reads zealously and is uncharacteristically social.
A puppy mill casualty whom Holloway found at a pet store, Cowboy was one of a long line of pets –hermit crabs, hamsters, a rabbit named Ruby and an aquarium – who were welcomed into the family home to help soothe and distract from the crushing weight of Will’s spectrum disorder diagnosis.
“I think the animals were an attempt to avoid the sadness and worry of Wills’ diagnosis, but they also, and most importantly, made Wills and me very happy,” says Holloway. “I was in the market for happy. Also, Wills was able to tolerate public restrooms, sometimes restaurants and other places that made him uncomfortable if there was a hermit crab or some kind of animal with him. It grounded him.”
Holloway chronicles her son’s puppy love story in the heartbreaking, witty (yes, witty) and compelling memoir, Cowboy & Wills.
Books and bubble baths
Holloway knew little about autism when Wills was diagnosed. “I didn’t know there was such an enormous array of autistic traits and that the spectrum was so vast.”
For the voracious reader (married to The Simpsons writer Michael Price) who says she doesn’t like to be without a book “if I’m going to be anywhere more than three minutes,” the daunting prognosis that her son would never be able to read was unfathomable.
But together they’ve read some of her favorite childhood books. And, yes, Wills has even read the memoir detailing his early years. “I realized [he’d read the book] when one day he came out of his room with it in his hand and said ‘Hey, I kinda like myself in this.’” What’s not to like? Will was an affable child. He liked other children; he just didn’t know how to connect with them.
“Cowboy helped Wills turn to people for the first time in his life,” Holloway says. “Children came running to meet the dog, but ended up loving Wills – and with Cowboy by his side, he ended up loving them right back.”
Wills had an acute sensory aversion to water and bubble baths. But the day Cowboy dive bombed into the bathtub, Wills’ screams of terror gave way to screams of playful delight.
The day Wills said, “I love you.”
Wills never said “I love you.” He couldn’t connect the words to the feelings. Until one day, out of the blue, when Holloway was driving the car with Wills and Cowboy seated in the back, the longed for words were soft and clear: “I love you,” he said as he nuzzled Cowboy.
Sleeping alone was not as daunting for Wills with his dog by his side. And Wills was soon communicating his own thoughts and feelings for the first time, expressing emotions through Cowboy. “Cowboy is scared” meant Wills was scared, and his parents could respond accordingly.
But far too early in her young life, Cowboy became gravely ill with cancer. The family spared nothing to save her, but there was nothing they could do. “Wills will probably never get over the loss of that amazing dog,” says Holloway. “Her legacy is that she helped Wills turn to people for the first time in his life.”
And, ironically, Holloway says that’s what allowed her to safely navigate an often harrowing path. Turning to people. “I isolated myself when Wills was diagnosed and what I really needed was information and a community of parents to turn to. Through the Autism Speaks website and Facebook page, I have found parents addressing really difficult and helpful subjects regarding autism.”
Animals, children and autism
Research studies and similar books are now detailing the powerful effects of animal relationships with children with autism. A New Mexico Highland University graduate student led a study on the value of animal assisted therapy. Five-year-old Zachary struggled with conversation but after just three months of working with an 8-year-old cattle dog named Henry, Jennifer Barol, the student, reported that the boy was completing sentences for the first time.
Today Wills’ home and bed are filled with two new animal companions – dogs Buddy and Leo Henry. “Even though he loves them very much,” says Holloway, “he doesn’t need them to be in the world.”
And if things go Wills’ way, our world will be one without puppy mills. “He wants puppy mills shut down forever,” says Holloway. “That’s his goal, and he’s already written to President Obama about it. I do think [the foundation he plans to establish] is the one thing that will help Wills make peace with Cowboy’s death. He had no control over how ill she was, but he could change the future for another little boy and his new puppy. Preventing even one puppy from being treated so inhumanely is powerful stuff. Most of them are ill, like Cowboy was.
“Most importantly, he wants them to feel loved.”
And what would Holloway say to Cowboy to express her gratitude for dramatically changing her son’s life?
“You are the sweetest, most loving thing that has ever happened to our little family. You changed everything, Cowboy. Your gift to Wills lives on, and will continue to do so throughout his life. I cannot imagine who he’d be now, if it weren’t for you. When I think about your sweet face, I cannot help but wonder how we got so lucky. You were so briefly and brilliantly here. We miss you with all our hearts, and we will love you throughout eternity.”