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Family hopes trained therapy animal will help 4-year-old son with autism

Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 29, 2013 10:15 a.m. CDT

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Joe Fresso worked to get a dimpled grin out of his 4-year-old son Mason, as the two rolled on the living room floor.

Some tickling, and Mason was off, quickly headed toward the television screen. He banged on it a bit, and it wobbled as Fresso dashed over to steady it.

"Oh my gosh," Mason's mother Julia said, as she looked on. "It's always something new."

The Lake in the Hills couple already had screwed the television down because Mason used to bang on the stand.  But at 50 pounds, he's gotten bigger and stronger. 

And now he's everywhere, his parents say. Unlocking windows, trying to get out the patio door, sticking limbs down the heating vents. They've since screwed down the vents, as well.

"It's just constant awareness as to where he is," Joe Fesso said. "You can't take your eyes off him for a second."

Mason was diagnosed with autism at 1 1/2 years old. He's since received numerous therapy both at home and at school. He's slowly made progress, but still has no real ability to communicate. 

It leads to frustration, both on his part and his parents, who feel blessed for every hug, every little wave and any eye contact they get from their son.

They're constantly researching ways to help their son, and they believe a dog might be an answer, or at least a help. But to get the dog through the agency they believe can best serve Mason, they need to raise $13,000.

Through 4 Paws for Ability, based in Xenia, Ohio, autistic children are paired with service dogs to help them communicate, keep them from wandering, alert their parents when they wake in the night, disrupt negative behaviors and provide other benefits.

Those who qualify, such as the Fressos, are never turned away, but families are required to raise money to help pay for the dog.

While Mason's story will become part of 4 Paws for Ability's website at 4pawsforability.org, where people can donate in his name, the Fressos have set up their own fundraising page at indiegogo.com in the hopes of raising money more quickly. As of late this week, they'd raised only $430.

They'd like Mason to get a dog as soon as possible.

"He has no way of saying he's hungry, he wants a drink or something hurts," his father said.

When Mason gets frustrated, he'll bang his head. A service dog will learn the signs that lead up to this. Mason will squeeze things, shake things. If he's not interrupted, the banging will begin, his parents say.

Using various breeds and mixed breeds, such as golden retrievers, labs, poodles and German Shepherds, 4 Paws For Ability is the first agency in the country to train dogs specifically for autistic children, beginning in 1998 with two dogs in a one-bedroom apartment.

The agency now places about 100 dogs a year, not only for those with autism, but for those who are hearing impaired, suffering from seizures, diabetic and dealing with other disabilities.

Once the fundraising is met, the family will spend 11 days in training and working with the dog before the dog comes home with them.

"At least, if anything else, it will offer a peace of mind," Julia Fresso said.

Mason gets up throughout the night, so his parents sleep near him. Both employed as 911 dispatchers in Arlington Heights, they've heard and even dealt with too many stories involving children who've wandered off and become dangerously lost.

Autistic children especially are drawn toward water, they say, and they'll head toward fire, not away from it, generally. They don't care who they're with, stranger or not. They have no fear.

"They can escape so quickly and easily," Joe Fesso said. "If you turn your back for one second, they can be gone."

And Mason's gotten quicker and quicker, they say.

Drawn to a pink pillow he has with him at all times, Mason will become fixated on objects, such as a spinning fan.

"He'll kind of get lost in a world of his own," Joe Fresso said. "The dog will learn his behaviors and bring him back to reality."

The couple, who also has a 6-year-old daughter, Chloe, finds it difficult to take Mason out on trips to the store and elsewhere. Mason either needs to be in a stroller or holding a hand. They've used backpack tethers, overheard passersby who don't understand negatively comment about a child "being on a leash."

"As he gets older, it'd be a lot more socially acceptable if he's able to walk with a dog on a leash instead of having to be tethered to us," Joe Fresso said.

Chloe has joined in Mason's cause, presenting a PowerPoint presentation for her classroom on National Autism Awareness Day. 

She'll ask her mother often, "Is Mason going to be able to play with me?"

Already bruised from his thrashes, Julia Fresso worries about the future, when Mason's even bigger.  

"We never lose hope Mason has the potential to be an average child, but right now, developmentally, he's at [age] 1 1/2," Julia Fresso said.

"He didn't want to be touched. He'd never look at you. He has come a long way," she said. "It's just super slow progress."

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