ST. MARYS, Ga. (AP) — Diego Diaz is only 9 years old, but he knows how autism can impact families in ways others can only imagine.
Diego, of St. Marys, told his story May 11 as the guest speaker at the St. Marys Kiwanis Club.
His speech did not center on his form of autism, Asperger's syndrome, but the more severe case his 5-year-old brother, Joaquim, struggles with.
"Joaquim's autism is a whole lot different than mine," he said. "He has trouble speaking and sometimes doesn't speak at all. His siblings, his doll, Cuddy, and his service dog Fagin are his only friends."
Diego said his brother's new service dog has changed his life for the better since they were paired together about six months ago. Diego's speech that day was to create awareness about autism and to generate support to establish an endowment to pay for autism service dogs such as Fagin.
Before he got his service dog, Joaquim was nervous around people and noises, Diego said. Joaquim was unable to tell anyone why he was upset, and he would vent his frustration in self-destructive behavior such as banging his head.
"An autistic kid's tantrum is a whole lot worse than other kids when they are sad," he said.
His brother would have behavior issues in public, and Diego said he'd overhear people call his brother spoiled, or a brat that needs spanking.
"These people are wrong and they are misjudging my brother. They don't know what he's really like," he said.
Another ongoing concern was Diego's brother getting up in the middle of the night, generating concerns he could wander into a nearby pond or get struck by a car.
That all changed last year when Diego and his mother were watching a TV show about an autism service dog helping a boy.
"We couldn't believe it, and I said maybe we can get Joaquim one of those dogs," he said.
During an Internet search, Diego and his mother learned about a local program called Project Chance, an organization that trains autism dogs. It turned out to be a life-changing decision for his brother, nicknamed Keemy, and his family after they got the dog.
"Fagin helps people know that Keemy is autistic and is not bad," he said.
Diego said his brother and service dog are tethered together whenever they are out in public. Fagin prevents Joaquim from running away.
"Fagin is like a giant, hairy anchor and can stop my brother, who is like a ship, from drifting out to sea," he said. "Fagin can stop a meltdown just by snuggling and kissing him so he can be calm and won't hurt himself."
They now go to public places that used to intimidate his brother, such as playgrounds and bowling alleys.
Diego said his family has raised $10,000 to pay for Fagin and has to come up with another $2,500 within four months.
"Since Fagin became Joaquim's service dog, it has changed his life," Diego said. "He is happier, more confident, braver, more social, and I know it is because of Fagin being part of our family."
Diego's mother, Jeanna Diaz, told the audience they don't plan on stopping after they raise the additional $2,500 to pay for Fagin. Instead, they want to establish the Keemy Scholarship, which will continue to raise funds to help other local families who need help to purchase an autism service dog.
"In Camden County, we have a large population of autistic children," she said. "I see the opportunity to change a child's life and a family's life. There are a lot of kids this could help in Camden County, not just my child."
B.J. Szwedzinski, director and a dog trainer for Project Chance, said it takes about 18 months to train an autism service dog, and it requires a commitment on the family's part. Szwedzinski is also a special education teacher.
"I try to have families give sweat equity. I like to see them vested," she said. "We're a dog agency that services children. When you have a companion accept you unconditionally, change happens."
Information from: The Brunswick News, http://www.thebrunswicknews.com