UN­BREAK­ABLE BONDS

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

Pets (Singapore) - - Contents -

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.

PER­FECT PAIR­ING

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.

BET­TER TO­GETHER

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.”

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