On a cloudy day in London, Danielle Brook opens up about Autism Life Dogs, awards and her inspiring story.
When I arrive at the station of Crystal Palace, in the south-east London area, a fresh breeze is in the air, mixed with my excitement to meet one of the winners of “Women of Excellence Awards 2017”, Danielle Brook. After a sandwich and few minutes waiting, I see Danielle, wearing a pair of trousers with a nice red jacket. And of course, she is followed by the lovely and sweet Nutmeg. Anyone who knows Danielle knows that she rarely goes somewhere without her best friend Nutmeg, a 10-years-old chocolate Labrador.
While we walk through the park, leaving “Nut-Nut” strolling around freely, Danielle starts to open up to me about Autism Life Dogs and her inspiring story. “Autism Life Dogs was born in 2014 as a non-profit organisation”, she tells me, explaining how children affected by autism, with the help and the interaction with dogs through particular activities, have been able to develop incredible improvements, starting to live a better and easier life. “My work didn’t initially involve dogs or animal-assisted therapy, but when I started including Nutmeg in my therapy sessions, children would often respond to her much more than they would with me. The more Nutmeg worked with the children, the more significant improvements I saw and she very quickly became fundamental in my therapy sessions”.She goes on to explain how she saw that many of the autistic children she worked with had a special affinity with dogs and through animal-assisted therapy have been able to achieve incredible improvements. “Nutmeg has been able to make a completely non-verbal autistic child speak after only seven minutes together”, says Danielle proudly, while we are walking and Nutmeg is happily following us sniffing around with her big brown nose. Although Nutmeg is the superstar of Autism Life Dogs, the organisation has grown from just Danielle and Nutmeg to a team 40 more assistance dogs all over the UK and a team of specialist trainers and therapists.
As we sit on the grass the conversation goes more on the personal level, when I ask how did it all start and where the idea comes from. “It was a really dark moment of my life”, she says throwing a ball to Nutmeg, “I was suffering from anxiety and depression, and Nutmeg became my saviour. During particularly difficult times I became so depressed I was unable to function in day-to-day life without her support. It occurred to me that those with autism also feel that anxiety and social isolation and if Nutmeg could offer me the support I needed, that maybe she could comfort the children I worked with, doing something as simple as stroking her, but it became so much more than that”.
Unfortunately, Autism Life Dogs’ programme does not work for everyone, but Danielle gets emotional as she recounts of Jack. “When his parents asked for help Jack was three and half years old and severely autistic. He was very violent and non-verbal. After two weeks with Lexi, the dog that was placed with the family, he had amazing improvements. Now he is completely fluent, he goes to school and his mom jokes that she cannot stop him talking!”, she says laughing. “It is something very special to have a Mum thank you for the gift of hearing her child speak. We are very blessed that we get to be a part of so many incredible stories like that”.
When we move into a café to grab a cup of coffee, our conversation moves into a different direction, talking about projects, goals and awards. The goals reached are many indeed, and it is not the first time for Danielle and the organization to be awarded for their good work; having been recognised in the 2016 Third Sector awards for “Small charity, big achiever”and the “Service to Autism” award in 2012, as well as her recent “Woman of Excellence award”, which “was for those women who went through a lot and brought something good to the society”.
However, the goals Danielle and Autism Life Dogs want to reach are higher than before, and in front of a demanding society she stands up not only for those who are affected by autism, but also for those affected by mental health: “There is still a lot of awareness needed surrounding mental health and developmental disorders like autism. .I would like to see emotional support dogs receive more recognition, as I know from personal experience the significant impact they can have in helping people who suffer from anxiety and depression”.
For now, with ever-increasing demand, Danielle, Nutmeg and the Autism Life Dogs team are focused on helping as many children and families living with autism as possible bringing them together with their special life-long canine best friend.