Although in many ways Sophia Reither has always been a typical young girl — her mom describes her as silly, adventurous, headstrong — there is something else about her that to many is seen as the dominant trait. Sophia has autism.
“She is autistic, and she is socially awkward…” her mother, Michele Reither, told reporters at Minnesota NBC affiliate KARE. “She is not understood by most people. She is also a selective mute, which means she doesn’t communicate the same way as other kids.”
In fact, through most of elementary school, Sophia didn’t communicate at all, refusing to speak to teachers or fellow students. She was prone to tantrums and occasionally aggressive behavior. Life was chaotic, routine activities easily run off the rails by unpredictable meltdowns.
But now, as hundreds of kids make their way around Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine, MN, Sophia is among them, a sixth grader now enjoying an astonishing turnaround as she walks the halls alongside a very special educational aid, her beautiful assistance dog, Rylee.
“It’s been amazing. Truly amazing,” marveled science teacher Bobbi Jo Rzeszutek.
Over the years, her mother had tried a litany of therapies before reading about the power of animals. She took Sophia to equine therapy and the results were astounding.
“Sophia connected with the horse immediately,” recalled Michele. “She’d come off smiling and talk about the horse.”
Encouraged, the family adopted a dog with mixed results. Sophia liked the golden retriever, but the dog was confused by her yelling, fits and inconsistent behavior. Then the family heard about Can Do Canines. They applied for an assistance dog, and were matched with Rylee back in March. Trainers sensed the affectionate, laid-back Lab would be a good fit. Now, when Rylee senses Sophia on the verge of a meltdown, she will nuzzle or lay by her to prevent an incident.
“For me, the fundamentals have changed our family routine,” Michele Reither said. “For her, she partners with the dog. If she’s having a hard time or melts down, she talks to Rylee. She believes Rylee talks to her. She says ‘Rylee, I know mom’s mean, she’s making us clean our room,’ and Rylee must say, ‘yeah she is, let’s do it anyway,’ because all of a sudden Sophia is cleaning up her room.”
“The dog doesn’t judge her,” Reither continued. “She can melt down, cry, and she’ll call the dog over and the dog will lick her face. And say ‘it’s ok…. We’re going to get through this’.”
The transformation in Sophia is all-encompassing. At school she’s now raising her hand in class, interacting with classmates and avoiding meltdowns.
“[Rylee] brings out a person in Sophia that I don’t’ think her teachers saw in elementary school….” said math teacher Jill Augustine. “It’s just been incredible and exciting to see.”
Rylee goes to every class with Sophia an lies beneath her desk. When she senses Sophia becoming anxious, stressed, or needing reassurance… relief is close at hand. “When I feel overwhelmed she comes next to me and visits… puts her head on my leg,” says Sophia. “Because I know she’s there, she helps me get my work done.”
Rylee has only been with Sophia about five months, but the process of training an assistance dog, matching it with a person in need and preparing the two to be partners takes much longer. It’s also expensive; the price tag on training a dog is about $25,000. Through Can Do Canines, the family matched with a dog doesn’t pay anything up front, but assumes the cost of care for their animal.
Each fall Can Do Canines holds an event to help defray the cost of training their assistance dogs. If you’re local to their Minneapolis-area location, you may want to help out (and have fun while doing so). The Fetching Ball is set for Saturday, November 12.
For kids like Sophia, those who fund programs like these mean everything. Rylee has given her a voice — literally.
“It’s given her freedom, and it’s also given us an idea she’ll be able to work, hold a job, connect and communicate with people,” her mom says, grateful. “We didn’t know if she’d have any of that in her. She’s a different kid.”