Funds needed to buy therapy dog for CH girl

Riley O'Neil, 8, of Cleveland Heights, is waiting for funds for a therapy dog to help her manage Asperger's syndrome.

Eight-year-old Riley O'Neil loves animals and already has three cats of her own. But she needs another pet – a dog to help her deal with her Asperger's syndrome.

Riley's mother, Michelle, says Riley is the "sweetest, most pure heart you'll ever meet." Riley loves her six-year-old brother, Seth, and is "very kind and honest," her mother says. Her anxiety, however, has made social settings difficult for her. Riley will stand outside a group she wants to join, but will be too nervous to ask.

That's just one of the many effects Asperger's, a high-functioning form of Autism, has on Riley's life. Approximately one in 150 children has Autism; one in 84 boys, Michelle says. When Riley was 18 months old, she was having more meltdowns then most kids her age and her parents knew "something was up." After seeing many doctors, it was determined that Riley had Asperger's. She attended a program called DAN (Defeat Autism Now) at age 4, which put her on Methyl B12 and stopped her meltdowns in two weeks. However, she still needs help, despite years of occupational and physical therapy.

Asperger's is characterized by acute forms of all the senses, getting kids overwhelmed more easily. Riley has a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear, which makes emotions more difficult to manage and behavior at school a challenge. After doing research, Michelle discovered that a service dog from 4 Paws for Ability, an organization in Xenia, Ohio, might be able to help her daughter. 4 Paws for Ability provides dogs for people with all sorts of disabilities.

The O'Neils are fund-raising for a dog, which will be highly trained and provide a lot of assistance to Riley. The dog will walk with Riley and help monitor her behavior, aiding her if it notices she is upset and helping her calm down. It will also help her in her social life, her mother says, as people will see that she has the dog and talk to her about it.

Michelle says that Riley is just starting to realize she's different, and it's just starting to bother her. At school, sometimes the noise disturbs her so much that she needs to go to a quiet space to prevent having a meltdown. She has also missed out on family outings due to sensory overloads.

Those who know Riley are supportive of getting the dog. Her teachers and principal at Canterbury Elementary will allow her to bring the dog to school. Riley needs the Heights community to help her get the dog. 4 Paws for Ability does not allow families to pay the $11,000 required to buy the dog. A benefit concert will be held in New York in December, but more funds are needed. Michelle says the family will appreciate donations of any amount.

Visit lifeorileyo@gmail.com for information on how to donate.

Simone Quartell is a senior at Cleveland Heights High School. She has been a member of The Black and Gold student newspaper since her freshman year, where she is an editor and has covered school district issues in depth. She plans to study journalism in college.

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Volume 2, Issue 1, Posted 1:47 PM, 11.26.2008