It has been said that dogs have a way of finding people who need them. Morgan Olson, with the support of her family and community, is on a journey to help bring that dog to her son, Nolan.
Nolan, a nine-year-old boy from Deer Park, was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Olson said, “ Nolan is nine, but his mental age is more of a 18 month old.”
Olson explained early in Nolan’s life she noticed behaviors that concerned her. “He had the desire to bang his head on the floor out of frustration and his communication wasn’t where it should have been. Over the years it has regressed and essentially disappeared,” she said.
As a toddler, Nolan was able to count to 19 but now he does not really speak. His mother said he has around10 words he randomly uses but feels they aren’t effective communication.
Nolan had frequent ear infections. He had three rounds of tubes placed in his ears and on the third surgery his adenoids were removed. His family was hopeful they might start to see some vocabulary appear but that didn’t happen. “We utilized Birth to 3 in St. Croix County, did occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy at St. Croix Therapy Center in Hudson for a few years and have WEAP (Wisconsin Early Autism Project) out of Eau Claire five days a week at our home to work on communication methods, self help skills and even coping techniques,” said Olson.
“I had seen that there were service dogs for different types of ‘invisible illnesses’ such as autism, epilepsy and diabetes. I spoke with Nolan’s social worker and she had gave me names of different agencies that train autism service dogs,” she said. Olson found many of the agencies require routine travel on behalf of the child and family for extended periods of time, sometimes by air. Olson said, “I thought there is no way we could take Nolan on an airplane out of state for weeks at a time. Some of these agencies required you to train with the dog and if the dog and child are not a good match you start the process all over again.”
She learned of Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR) out of Madison, Virginia. The company travels with the dog instead of the child having to come to them. “All training is done in your average daily setting, so the dog will have training at school with Nolan and train to do things such as going to Walmart with us,” said Olson.
In March she read SDWR were taking applications for Autism Service Dogs with scholarship possibilities. This was due to April being Autism Awareness Month. “I took the leap and applied. In April I heard back that based off my application and our family’s extensive community service background we were selected for a $10,000 scholarship because they knew we were pay it forward people.” She feels her grandma who had recently died had something to do their selection as she said she was going to watch over Nolan.
“We are now raising the other $15,000 to obtain our dog and begin training. Families usually raise $25,000 before getting their service dog and then begin extensive training to learn what both the dog and child needs to make this a successful pairing. On average it costs roughly $48,000 per service dog after the training and travel is done. We will be placed with either a golden retriever or a lab,” Olson said.
She is hopeful that Nolan’s new companion will make a difference in everyday life for Nolan and his family. Olson said, “When Nolan was younger he would bite, head-butt, slap and scratch us. He has always been a loud crier and that is what he does when he gets angry or tired, cries LOUDLY. He gets restless and will head butt walls, putting multiple holes on the drywall over the past few years. He put his head into a glass window and broke it, slapped a different glass window and broke it.”
A former school district employee and the team at WEAP informed Olson that Nolan is one of the most extreme children they have ever seen.
“He has a tendency to become very angry and sometimes violent toward me, my mom and dad. Nolan also has zero patience when it comes to waiting. I feel bad for our neighbors who get to hear the lawn mower start up at 6 a.m. because Nolan is having a meltdown over wanting a ride,” she said. Olson said they usually do not have an idea of why he becomes angry and agitated.
“We live with my parent’s right now. Because of Nolan’s severity there is no way I could work a regular 40-hour job. Some mornings Nolan will wake up at 4 a.m. and I have 3,000 steps on my Fitbit by 8 a.m. It gets frustrating when you go through these periods of sleeplessness more than one night in a row, which isn’t uncommon for him. I rely on caffeine to get through the day but find my patience for others is nil. We all feel helpless at times, especially when Nolan does something like break a window or put a hole in the wall because he is mad. Those days really take a toll on the entire household,” she said.
“Our hope is that a trained service dog will change Nolan’s life and ours. I follow SDWR’s Facebook page and see other children who have autism service dogs going to the dentist and having a cleaning and check up without surgical sedation because the dog is there to calm them and I think ‘I really hope that can be us!’ We would be thrilled to have Nolan calm down with the aid of his dog and to be able to go for walks on the road, which we have never done without a stroller, but a child who is 4 foot, 3 inches and weighs 70 lbs. doesn’t fit in a stroller anymore,” said Olson.
“Nolan also tries to run away and is on Project LifeSaver with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office, but a dog would be able to bark and notify us that Nolan is taking off and follow him. Lastly, we hope that this will help him form some verbal communication skills. I have read about children who are nonverbal and start talking once they have their companion,” she said.
The public is invited to follow their Facebook page “Nolan & Morgan’s Quest for an Autism Service Dog.” A Silent Auction will take place Aug. 3 from 1-5 p.m. at the Village Park in Deer Park. The Deer Park Lion’s Club will be selling brats and hot dogs, and the Extending Friendship Church from the Deer Park will assist with the auction. Olson said, “We hope to see an amazing turn out and let the community help support Nolan on this journey.”