The fates brought Dr Dawn-joy Leong— who has Asperger’s syndrome—and Lucy the Greyhound together six years ago. Since then, the inseparable pair have impacted each other in extraordinary ways. By GILLIAN LIM
Autistic artist-researcher Dr Dawn-joy Leong battles to keep her sensory meltdowns at bay with her assistance dog, Lucy the rescued Greyhound, by her side.
we’ve witnessed many heartwarming human-animal bonds, but there’s something very special about the relationship between Dr Dawn-joy Leong and her assistance dog, Lucy Like-a-Charm.
Like a stoical guardian, the 10-year-old Greyhound was constantly by Dr Leong’s side during our photo shoot—quiet, graceful and composed. To most, Lucy may come across as just a sweet, wellbehaved pet. But to Dr Leong, the pooch is a gift from heaven. You see, the 52-year old multidisciplinary artist-researcher has Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), and Lucy helps her to cope with the afflictions of the disorder.
Dr Leong’s autism causes her to suffer from sensory hypersensitivity—it means that her senses are heightened to such an extent that what might seem normal to us may be challenging and even physically painful for her. Sudden loud noises shock and upset her; foul smells trigger anxiety and nausea; bright lights make her eyes run; and fluorescent flickering make her dizzy. When her senses are overloaded, it triggers meltdowns. In fact, during our conversation, a tray clatters to the ground—the loud noise clearly frays her nerves.
After meeting us, Dr Leong felt the onslaught of a sensory attack and had to spend an entire day recuperating quietly at home with Lucy. “Since Lucy has come into my life, I’ve become more aware of my condition. She watches over me. There are days when I don’t want to speak. I’ll make noises and gestures, and she still understands what I want. She doesn’t need me to interact,” shares Dr Leong.
Lucy is more than just a pet—she’s a registered psychiatric assistance canine. The sweet furkid can sense when Dr Leong is nearing a meltdown and warns her, helps to regulate her schedule by interjecting when Dr Leong forgets her
meals, and keeps her from dissociating during attacks. “To me, she’s a gift of provenance,” she shares with a smile. However, it wasn’t always this smooth sailing for Dr Leong, especially before Lucy came into her life.
A ROUGH CHILDHOOD
Having autism meant that Dr Leong’s abilities were at extreme ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, she was gifted in music, art and logical thinking—she could fold origami at age three and even composed a musical play at age nine. In class, she aced English Language and geometry. Yet on the other hand, she didn’t understand social nuances and abstract thinking, and flunked English literature and mechanical mathematics. As a result, school was a nightmare for her. “I used to be quite rude to the teachers and called them boring,” she admits with a chuckle.
Meltdowns happened on a daily basis because Dr Leong’s senses were always overloaded at school. “As a child, my meltdowns were perceived by teachers as tantrums. I would cry, scream and yell. I’d experience intense sensations all at once: physical heaviness, nausea, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, exhaustion, extreme fear or anxiety, inability to speak or articulate coherently, difficulty entering into a state of rest, and occasionally bursting into tears,” she shares. Being unable to find a quiet place to settle down during school hours only made the episodes worse—Dr Leong ended up being punished for her meltdowns.
The third of four daughters, Dr Leong ended up devising coping mechanisms at home, which revolved around art and music. Her mother, a teacher, gave her a dedicated blank wall in the house to doodle on, and her father, a dental surgeon, allowed her to be different and eccentric. Despite having numerous family pets throughout her childhood, Dr Leong never had a personal pooch to keep her sane—not until Lucy came along.
While Dr Leong was pursuing her PhD in autism, neurodiversity and art at the University of New South Wales in Sydney in 2012, she read about the plight of racing Greyhounds that are culled by the thousands every year if they’re not suited for the track. Wanting to help, she volunteered to foster ex-racing Greyhounds, and the rescuers paired her with Lucy.
“She came to me not knowing how to be a pet, so as a fosterer, that’s what I had to teach her,” says Dr Leong. “Lucy was really reserved at first, but then she started instinctually doing things for me.” From
time to time, without any prompting,
Lucy would shove her long snout between Dr Leong and her study table. As it turns out, the gentle giant could sense when her then-fosterer had lost track of time and was simply reminding her to eat. “Asperger’s often makes me focus so intently on what I’m doing that I miss my meals, causing me to feel faint or dizzy,” she explains.
Whenever Dr Leong ventured beyond the apartment with Lucy, the intuitive pooch could sense if she felt overloaded or stressed and gently nudged her. Subsequently, Lucy began leading Dr Leong away from crowded places. “I soon realised that we had a very automatic and symbiotic relationship,” says Dr Leong. “I have a feeling that Lucy knew about my autism and heightened senses from day one.”
One night into the two-month fostering period, both Dr Leong and Lucy woke up at the same time for no apparent reason. “We stared at each other for a split second,” she recalls. Then, the pup jumped into Dr Leong’s bed and refused to get off. “In that defining moment, I knew that she had adopted me,” Dr Leong confesses with affection. Once the two months were up, Dr Leong signed the adoption papers and Lucy was hers to keep.
Realising Lucy’s potential as an assistance dog, Dr Leong decided to have her furkid properly trained and certified by mindDog Australia as a registered psychiatric assistance dog.
Even when Lucy isn’t able to be by her side, the pooch is a constant anchor of calm for her paw-rent. “I always have Lucy on my mind, telling me when I need to get out of a particular situation or room. So even if she’s not physically with me— especially here in Singapore where pets aren’t allowed in many places—Lucy is still with me. That’s why she’s special.”
It’s been six years since Lucy came into Dr Leong’s life, and just like her racing name—Like-a-Charm—suggests, the pup has been an absolute charm. Dr Leong has stopped taking her anxiety medication and hasn’t had a meltdown for over a year now. “Previously, I’d just suffer alone—I’d take medication, and then wonder why I was feeling that way, have a meltdown and scream into my pillow,” she shares. Instead, now whenever Dr Leong feels overwhelmed, she strokes or hugs Lucy.
“Lucy is absolutely perfect. I really don’t know what I’d do without her. Even if I get another dog, it’s never going to be the same,” says Dr Leong. “Once in a lifetime, you get that one dog. And although I’ll probably have other animals that I love, I think that Lucy is very special. She is that one dog for me.”