Liam Morgan

Liam Morgan and his autism service dog, Norman. 

Liam and Norman first met on May 7, 2018.

My son was 9 and Norman, his golden retriever, was 16 months. After anxiously waiting over 300 days for his new loyal companion and fundraising $25,000, we finally reached the glorious day. That day is a marker in our lives in how we live with Liam’s autism. There’s life before May 7 – meltdowns, anxiety attacks and self-injury, with very little to offer to soothe – and then there’s life after May 7 – easier, more comforting and safer.

Norman is different from most pets. In fact, his role in our family doesn’t resemble a pet’s life at all. Norman joined our family to work. As an autism service dog, he was specifically picked from his litter and trained by Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers to meet the needs and difficulties that come with Liam’s autism.

Service dogs offer an increased opportunity for independence and a high quality of life. Dogs like Norman are trained to help with sensory processing disorder, social interaction, sleep patterns, redirection from self-harm, finding a lost child and much more. The Americans with Disability Act defines service dogs as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” For children with autism, this is no different.

As we pray and believe for healing, I feel God has led us to Norman. Self-injury is an everyday occurrence for Liam. Norman redirects him by pawing at him or placing his head in his lap. He is also trained to lay over Liam to apply deep pressure if he gets overstimulated. Meltdowns used to last up to two hours, but with Norman, they are drastically shorter. He is a game changer.

But getting Norman wasn’t easy.

In 2017, some close friends of mine helped me coordinate the Paws for Liam dinner and live auction fundraiser to raise $25,000 for Norman. My close friend Sen. Shannon Grove hosted the event, and I was so touched to see a large turnout of love and support. Big supporters of Paws for Liam included Grove, Leigh Ann Anderson, local businesses and Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church.

If it wasn’t for people in the Bakersfield community, we would not have been able to get Norman. Because of them, our lives are different and I’m eternally grateful.

Since we adopted Norman last May, he’s been in continuous training. Most recently I’ve been working with Norman to redirect during knuckle biting. Liam has severe anxiety, which causes him to bite his knuckles raw. In training, I will emulate Liam biting his knuckles while rewarding Norman for every time he touches my hands with his nose. He’s a smart dog and learns quickly.

However, when his vest is off, Norman is considered off work and is all play. He is a vital part of our family and not just because of his work. We love him and are grateful for the difference he’s made in our lives.

Be a companion in Bakersfield. 

Melissa Morgan is a passionate mom who is committed to helping her son live his best life. Norman was adopted from Service Dogs of Warren Retrievers and is named after Deputy Norman Lewis who lost his life two years ago in the line of duty in Orlando. Opinions expressed in this column are those of Morgan.

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