A five-year-old boy with autism and a rare brain condition has had his life completely transformed after forming an incredible bond with his dog.
Leon Kirby-Bulner, from Andover, Hampshire, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.
Further tests by doctors revealed that he also suffers from a rare brain condition called Chiari malformation, where the lower part of the brain pushes down into the spinal canal and can cause painful headaches.
Leon, affectionately nicknamed Man Cub by his parents due to his resemblance to Mowgli from The Jungle Book, didn’t speak or interact with the world around him before the family welcomed the cocker spaniel, now three-year-old Fern, into their lives.
The amazing friendship between the pair came about entirely by chance – Leon’s parents run a falconry business, and originally got working cocker spaniel Fern for flushing work with hawks.
But the moment Fern and Leon met, everything changed.
“As soon as he saw her, there were stars in his eyes,” mum Hayley recalls.
“We’d never seen that before. He used to sit in the corner and rock – he didn’t want you to interact with him, he didn’t want to be around you. He just wanted to be left alone.
“But this tiny little puppy made him smile and grin – all of these emotions that we’d never actually seen from him. And we knew within a couple of weeks that we’d lost our falconry dog – Fern was going to be his dog.”
The family went on to find a special trainer for Fern so that she was able to assist Leon more in his day to day life. The clever dog showed incredible intuition early on when it came to helping out her new best friend.
“[Leon] headbutts – it can be the autism side with stress, but it can also be headache-related with the Chiari, so he will get down on his knees and he will headbutt,” Hayley explains.
“Fern was never taught to do it – but of her own accord of a pup, she would get underneath his head and stop him from head-banging.”
As well as being trained to stop Leon from headbutting and calming his meltdowns, Fern is now trained to help Leon in many other areas of his life. She brings Leon’s clothes and feeding equipment to him each morning, helps him to get dressed, puts his nappies in the bin, and even loads the washing machine.
And the bond between boy and dog is unbreakable. “They do absolutely everything together,” Hayley says.
The pair are so inseparable that Fern was heartbroken when Leon had to stay in hospital at the start of this year.
“She sat by the front door, and she just kept bringing me his shoes and coat. She just didn’t understand why he wasn’t there.”
Hayley has now set up the TAP Assistance Dogs charity, to pairing more autistic children with assistance dogs after Fern and Leon’s success story.
Hayley hopes to raise awareness about just how much a canine companion can help, after seeing the amazing transformation in her son.
“He didn’t speak before Fern. You can’t shut him up now,” Hayley laughs.
“She’s completely changed our lives. We couldn’t do without her.”
“She’s been the key to his door – unlocking his little world.”