EDITOR'S NOTE: The Society for Features Journalism honored this story in its 2016 Excellence-in-Features Awards contest. The story placed third in the Short Feature category for large publications with a circulation of 200,000 and up.
All moms worry about their sons. Amanda Granados worried more.
The Los Angeles mother watched her young son Joey struggle in uncommon ways. In kindergarten, he got suspended from school six times for behavior he couldn’t control. Sitting still was torture for him, and sometimes he couldn’t resist hitting himself.
His diagnosis at age 7 with Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, rocked Granados’ world. Even more challenging was Joey’s loathing of physical contact. Granados wanted to hug, kiss and cuddle her son, but she never could. Years went by, and it seemed she never would.
Then, a few months ago, a new friend entered Joey’s life. This friend, named Roxy, had fur, four legs, a tail and a goofy disposition, and she made Joey so happy that he did something unthinkable: He gave his mom a big, spontaneous kiss on the cheek.
“I get emotional thinking about it,” Granados told TODAY. “For all those years, he wouldn’t hold my hand, he wouldn’t hug me — it was all part of the autism — but this dog has taught him how to give and show affection. He holds my hand now! He hugs me! The first time I got a kiss on the cheek was when Roxy came home.”
Joey, now 14, said his new dog has made everything easier for him.
“I didn’t have too many friends growing up, but then we got Roxy and I’ve been able to make friends ever since,” Joey said. “At home, I’ve been able to hold my mom’s hand, kiss her, hug her and do a lot of things that I hadn’t been able to do growing up.
“She’s opened up my heart.”
A little more than a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released estimates showing that one in 68 U.S. children has an autism diagnosis. Autism is nearly five times more common among boys than girls; one in 42 boys has it.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a 100 percent increase of autism,” said Lisa Goring, an executive vice president with the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. Goring said one reason for the spike is growing awareness of the developmental disorder, which is resulting in more people being diagnosed.
But that alone doesn’t explain the startling rise. “We know there’s a genetic component, but there’s also an environmental trigger,” Goring said. “We don’t know what that environmental trigger is.”
No two autism cases are quite the same. Joey, for example, is a math whiz who can solve complex puzzles in minutes and recite a book from memory after reading it once. His mother knows Joey will be able to drive a car, hold down a job and live on his own someday.
“Learning is the easiest thing for him — it’s the social situations that are difficult,” said Granados, 36, a single mother of three boys. “He has a hard time reading social cues or facial expressions, and there’s awkwardness around making friends. Before Roxy, he wouldn’t even play or get along with his two little brothers.”
A photo on the Internet led Joey to his new best friend. Joey had been asking his mom for a dog, and she saw that the Best Friends Pet Adoption & Spay/Neuter Center in Los Angeles was planning an event where a shelter dog could be adopted for $10.
“We were looking through pictures online, and Roxy’s picture made us fall in love with her,” Granados recalled.
Granados and Joey arrived at Best Friends at 7 a.m. on the big day. Within minutes, sparks flew.
“As soon as Roxy met Joey, she totally ignored me and his mother,” said adoptions specialist Denise Landaverde. “Amanda was happily surprised to see Roxy go straight to Joey and watch them play together. It just sealed the deal for her.”
Roxy is a soft gray pit bull with floppy ears and a playful personality. Granados confessed that she was nervous at first because she had heard bad things about pit bulls. But Roxy’s immediate connection with Joey made her melt.
“She is literally his best friend,” Granados said. “He can be in the foulest mood, and she comes along and it’s like a light. She doesn’t care about his differences — there’s no judgment with her — she just loves him.”
Joey agreed. “If I’ve been having a bad day, Roxy can hear a tone in my voice,” he said. “She runs up to me to give me a giant hug and lick me to death and do almost anything she can to make me happy.”
Research about the effects of companion animals on kids with autism is limited, but heartening. A 2014 study revealed that pet dogs can give children with autism much-needed companionship and help them learn responsibility. And a 2013 study showed children with autism were more likely to talk, laugh, make eye contact and show other positive social behaviors in the presence of guinea pigs than in the presence of toys.
Still, dogs are not a cure-all, cautioned Dr. Rolanda Maxim, director of developmental pediatrics at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Maxim started a dog therapy clinic to help children with autism, and she’s seen it do wonders for kids — with some caveats.
“It won’t work if the child is very aggressive to animals, does not like dogs or is afraid of or allergic to dogs,” Maxim noted. “Special connections can happen, but the child needs the opportunity to meet and choose the dog, and the dog also has to like the child.”
That’s precisely what happened between Joey and Roxy — and Joey’s mom has a theory about why.
“Kids with autism are looked at differently and misunderstood, and so are pit bulls,” Granados said. “I think that’s why they’ve bonded!”
Joey said he’s just grateful to have Roxy in his life: “It’s amazing to have a friend like this.”
Need a Coffey break? Connect with TODAY writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter at @ltcoff and on Google+, and learn about her non-fiction book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts" at MyOldDogBook.com.