WINCHESTER, Va. -- Nathan Selove used to have "meltdowns" every week. The symptoms of a minor one might go unnoticed - fast talking, avoiding eye contact, refusal to listen to others - but the screaming and yelling of a major meltdown are harder to ignore.
A yellow Labrador retriever named Sylvia (pictured) changed all that.
Ramon Selove, 46, had meltdowns of his own, sometimes literally running away from situations he found overpowering.
A chocolate Labrador retriever named Coriander changed all that.
Nathan, 15, is a sophomore at Sherando High School. His father, Ramon, is an associate professor of biology at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. Both have Asperger's syndrome - a high-functioning autistic disorder in 1 percent of the population that is characterized by repetitive patterns of behavior and difficulties in social interaction.
Other potential effects include the aforementioned meltdowns, but with the help of service dogs, both Nathan and Ramon have experienced fewer difficulties associated with the disorder.
"With Sylvia, I can connect with people," Nathan said. "She's a great social friend to me and a gateway to the neurotypical world."
Minutes before class begins, Nathan chats with friends as Sylvia flops down under his desk.
Wearing jeans, a red T-shirt and sneakers, he looks the part of an average teenager.
The 5-year-old Lab by his side is the only service animal in Frederick County Public Schools and often the only sign that Nathan has a disability.
"Students treat him better, now," said Nathan's mom, Shellie Selove, 44. "They used to just think he was weird. When he came back with a service dog, they realized he had a disability."
Back at his house, Nathan shows off his "Aspe Superpower," a term he and his dad coined to refer to a rare intellectual ability that often comes along with the disorder.
Both father and son compare talents. Ramon can read most anything -- from physics to cooking instructions -- and understand it immediately,
Nathan can memorize all the lines in a movie after watching it only two or three times. He shows this off by reciting a scene from the cartoon "Shrek," incorporating each character's accent and inflection perfectly.
As a participant in area plays, he also memorizes fellow actors' lines.
"It's kinda a curse, though," he said with a smile. "You know the line and you feel obligated to correct them."
Shellie gets emotional when she thinks about her son's life before Sylvia -- the night terrors, the bullying, his severe hyperactivity -- and how he'd often chew holes or weave pencils through his shirt during class due to anxiety.
Nathan was nine or 10 when he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and because it's a genetic disorder, his father was diagnosed shortly after.
Dogs always had a calming effect on Nathan, so when his psychologist mentioned a service dog as a treatment option, the family agreed.
Ramon, who found himself getting more and more stressed in loud or crowded situations, decided to get his own service dog when he saw how effective it was for his son.
Now, when Nathan feels a meltdown coming on, Sylvia will climb into his lap and soothe him, and when students surround Ramon after class with questions, Coriander will move in between him and the encroaching throng to calm his anxiety.
"Our service dogs allow us to be more independent," Ramon said.
In addition to his involvement with the Winchester Little Theatre, Nathan is also involved in Interact Club and forensic competitions -- activities that were impossible before Sylvia. Long car rides and back-to-school shopping are also now doable.
Ramon continues to teach, but his anxiety has decreased to a level that doesn't adversely affect his health.
For Shellie, their happiness means everything, especially Nathan's.
"It's really, really wonderful," she said with tears in her eyes. "He's just become happier. It used to be really painful and difficult (for him to) be in his own skin."
Monday, May 30, 2011
The Winchester Star:
Posted by BA Haller at 10:16 PM