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Therapy dog helps child with autism break through communication challenges

Autism Valentina.PNG
Posted at 5:47 PM, Jul 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-11 18:47:52-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — By all accounts, the early signs of life for young Valentina Marines were good.

"As an infant, she was hitting all of her milestones. Everything was typical," Valentina's mother, Sonia said.

But at 2-years-old, Sonia began noticing a change in her daughter.

"She used to be able to say certain things and then stopped saying those things," Sonia said.

Valentina was eventually diagnosed with echolalia, meaning she only communicated by repeating words of people she knew. According to her mother, Valentina's echolalia puts her in the middle of the autism spectrum.

Valentina has gone through numerous therapies to learn how to express herself.

"It's really just finding ways to help her to adapt," Sonia said.

One of those ways was to allow Valentina to take in new experiences, like a chance invitation to a school picnic a few years ago.

Though they didn't know it at the time, that picnic impacted a now 9-year-old Valentina in such a profound way because a few four-legged guests were also invited.

"I was not expecting the reaction she had to these therapy dogs," said Sonia.

It was really only one therapy dog in particular that caught Valentina's attention that day: Lexxa.

"That was it. It was an instant bond," Nellena McCabe, Lexxa's handler said.

Nelena remembered Valentina come in for the biggest hug for Lexxa, and right after, Nellena noticed tears in Sonia's eyes.

"I looked up and I told her (Sonia) it's okay. She's not hurting Lexxa. She can hug her as much as she wants," Nellena said. “And that's when Sonia said to me, 'No you don't understand. That's the first full sentence my daughter has ever spoken.'"

When her mother tried to make her daughter leave so Lexxa could visit other kids, Valentina pulled away and said "No! I want Lexxa, I love Lexxa."

After 9 years old, Valentina had finally spoken her first sentence in her own words.

After that meeting the pandemic hit, and while autism and any other life-altering conditions didn't take a break from COVID-19, Valentina and Lexxa did - until last year.

Sonia came across Lexxa's business card. She contacted Nellena to invite Lexxa to Valentina's 12th birthday. It turned out to be a celebration for two. Valentina remembered that she and Lexxa shared the same birthday month.

Nellena was happily surprised about the image Valentina requested for her birthday cake.

"They literally pulled one of Lexxa's photos off of her Facebook and put it on her cake," Nellena said.

Since that day, Valentina and Lexxa have been inseparable.

KRIS 6 News wondered if medical science was also at play here.

"When I found the families that I have worked with that have described this connection, it's a comfort in that, especially dogs, I think ... feeling protected or having them right nearby," Dr. Elisabeth Sheridan, Director, Clinical Care Drexel University said. She has worked in the field of autism for two decades.

 However, Dr. Sheridan contends that while many children like Valentina are drawn to therapy dogs like Lexxa, others are not. She said there's very little research on the subject, so be cautious and that there's no "one size fits all."

"I think it's really important to take stock of what resources you have and what's meaningful to your family," Sheridan said. "So I wouldn't say if you're watching this you said I've gotta get a dog for my kid tomorrow. I say talk to the professionals that know you … your child the best … and think ... does this make sense right not for me or not."

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