My pooch saved my LIFE!

I wrote Natalie's story for New! magazine, who reveals how her bearded dog Buster helps her through the challenges of caring for her autistic son Ethan. Do you have a hero pet? #BritainsBestPets #SellMyStory

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I was like any other mother, eagerly awaiting their child’s next milestone as I watched my son Ethan learn to smile, roll over, sit up, walk and talk. But by the time he was one-and-a-half, everything changed.

He stopped speaking, refused to eat most foods and became obsessed with certain rituals. He insisted on walking certain routes, didn’t interact with others and developed a fascination for numbers. He was constantly frustrated and his hyperactivity levels were through the roof.

After his 18-month baby checks, it was clear something wasn’t right and life became a whirl of appointments with doctors and specialists. It took until Ethan was four before my husband Rhys, 41, and I got an answer.

‘Ethan has autistic spectrum disorder,’ the specialist said.

Suddenly it all made sense and a part of me felt relieved to finally have a diagnosis. But we had a tough path ahead. Life changed dramatically and we had to plan every day meticulously for Ethan, carefully monitoring and managing his behaviour. I’d read that dogs were good with children who had autism, helping to calm them down and ease their anxieties.

‘Shall we get a dog?’ I asked Rhys.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he said.

We started trawling ads and eventually found a farm in Newport. We went along to see the selection of Labradoodle puppies there. One was placid and sleepy, one was very boisterous and then there was a third who was in-between.

‘What about him?’ Rhys said.

‘That’s the one,’ I said.

We named him Buster.

We took him home but when Ethan met him, the pair didn’t click like I thought they would. Still, Buster settled in our home and became one of the family.

Ethan’s behaviour continued to challenge me. Leaving the house with him was particularly difficult and I couldn’t seem to go anywhere without people being derogatory towards him. Whenever he had a meltdown, they were quick to point, stare, whisper and see him as stupid and incapable of emotion.

Their constant negativity left me feeling lonely, isolated and frustrated.

After a long day, I sat in front of the TV and Buster joined me on the sofa. He gave me a knowing look and as I stroked him, an instant sense of calm came over me. Minutes later, with my furry friend tucked up next to me, my sadness, worries and stress were quickly melting away.

In that moment, I realised that although we had got Buster for Ethan, he was going to be more of a help to me than my son.

In time, Rhys and I had our daughter Isobelle and she adored Buster, stroking him, brushing him and feeding him when she was old enough.

Soon after, I noticed something.

‘Buster’s got a beard!’ I said.

As it grew longer, I loved how adorable and unique it made him look.

When we went out, people would stop and stare at his beard. I likened it to the reactions Ethan often got from strangers, which gave me an idea...

Buster and Ethan became the inspiration to write my book, That Dog Has Got a Beard, exploring the consequences of being different though the eyes of a unique looking dog, and how we should celebrate quirks rather than judge them.

Now I realise Buster saved me – and continues to do so on a daily basis. Autism is a lifelong condition that has to be carefully managed and monitored, which can be emotionally draining. Ethan also has ADHD, which explains his hyper behaviour.

Throughout all the difficult times, Buster’s companionship has been invaluable. He always knows when I’m upset or unwell and helps to ease the most difficult and isolating times for me as a parent of a disabled child.

Ethan is now 13 and he’s the biggest fan of my book, which shows that it’s OK to be different, because that’s what makes you special and unique. With his seven-inch beard, nine-year-old Buster is certainly one of a kind and I’m grateful to him every day, for keeping me happy, calm and sane! Our family wouldn’t be the same without him.

· That Dog Has Got a Beard is available from Amazon

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