Purpose Driven Lives:
Justin, Pivy and Endless Possibilities
By Janis Gioia
Navigating Unchartered Waters
Some people spend a lifetime searching for their purpose in life. It’s like a treasure hunt for the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Books, blogs, apps, coaches and other gurus wait to help you with your quest.
Justin, of Massachusetts, doesn’t need any of that. He’s found his purpose in life through the love and bond he’s shared, for 12 ½ years, with his service dog, Pivy. From the day the gentle black lab came into his life, she began her work of gently guiding him into his.
This is their story.
Justin was born in 1996, diagnosed with autism at age 3 and nonverbal until he was 3 ½. He and his mom, Allison, struggled to make sense of a disability that wasn’t greatly understood at the time.
Allison says, “Justin was diagnosed before Autism Speaks and other organizations were educating parents and others about the condition. We were kind of on our own, figuring things out as we went, and it was very challenging.”
She remembers, “Our biggest challenge was going out into the community. Justin has anxiety disorder. It was very challenging when I would take Justin out and he would make sounds or gestures that were atypical for a child his age. Completely normal for a child with autism, but not what people in the community were educated to understand.
I was always nervous, uncomfortable, wondering what Justin would do and how that would draw the uncomfortable stares and attention of strangers.
One day at a coffee shop, Justin took a change container off the counter and let the coins fall to the floor. He was fascinated watching things bounce and roll. The barista screamed at Justin and at me for not controlling my child. It was a horrible, anxiety-producing situation.”
The episode was one of many that increased Allison’s fear about public outings with Justin.
“No one wore Autism Speaks t-shirts or anything like that. I would try to wear a pin or a hat that said “autism” on them somewhere, with the hope that people would see the word and understand what we were dealing with. It was incredibly hard.”
Shortly after their coffee shop experience, Allison noticed that Justin’s anxiety was increasing. “While I knew that many children with autism had anxiety, Justin’s anxiety was severe, intense, and affecting every area of his life. He was constantly in a state of dysregulation.”
Much of Justin’s anxiety stemmed from his struggles with communication.
“Autism makes communication hard for Justin, and he was also diagnosed with a cognitive disability when he was nine. Receptive and expressive language are difficult for him, so any situation involving people and communicating filled him with fear. This could include talking to people, listening to directions, being in an unfamiliar situation or meeting someone new. “
Along Came Pivy
Allison decided that a service dog might be the answer. She contacted Canines for Disabled Kids and spoke with Executive Director, Kristin Harness.
The organization, whose mission is to increase independence for children with disabilities and their families, promotes service dog partnerships, understanding and awareness. CDK gave Allison the things she most needed to secure a service dog for Justin: guidance, education and fundraising support.
They led her to NEADS (National Education Assistance Dog Services) who specialize in service dogs for children with autism and other disabilities. Justin was matched with Pivy, a charcoal black lab, whose gentle demeanor and calm presence eclipsed the challenges he was facing.
Alison explains, “Pivy came into Justin’s life at a time when he was struggling with anxiety all the time. He was unable to speak the words he wanted to, or to process the words he was hearing. This made the world around him scary and unpredictable. It was a place where he didn’t know what to expect or how to respond.”
Pivy changed all that.
“The staff at NEADS knew that we needed a dog who was very mellow. One that wouldn’t startle when Justin made sudden noises or strange sounds. Pivy fit the bill perfectly, from the first moment being a calm, stabilizing presence in Justin’s life.”
Stepping Out With Confidence
With Pivy by their side, Allison, Justin and her young daughter, Faith, stepped out with confidence, going out into the community, doing things that mothers and children do, that most people take for granted.
“Pivy and Justin immediately bonded, and suddenly, he wasn’t interested in grabbing things, like the coins on the counter of the coffee shop. He held Pivy’s leash, and had a sense of calm about him with her by his side,” says Allison.
“The most beautiful thing that Pivy did, and still does, is giving Justin experiences that other children have. Once Pivy entered Justin’s life attention shifted from Justin’s autism, which made him anxious, to Pivy as his awesome service dog.”
Language had always been a struggle but Justin quickly learned that people approaching him would ask one of three questions: What is your dog’s name? Can I pet her? What kind of a dog is she?
Those were questions he could expect and easily answer. He began to communicate with new people, in different places, and because of that, his social anxiety decreased.
“Pivy gave Justin access to experiences of joy, laughter and moments of happiness he’d never had before. She helped him calm down and communicate more easily with others.” Allison says.
Pivy became Justin’s passport into new worlds, his guide on the journey toward his life’s purpose.
Allison often took Pivy to school to teach students about service dogs and autism. His classmates would remember Pivy and would give Justin a high-five as a way to say hi, as Allison had coached them in her presentation. Pivy helped Justin make friends and made peers and adults seem more approachable.
Pivy accompanied Justin throughout the community and to St. George Church, church where Justin and his family worship.
“Allison laughs, “Pivy must have spent some time in church at the correctional facility where she was trained. We would walk into church and Pivy jumped right up into the pew, without being cued. Petting Pivy, with a soothing rhythmic motion, relaxed him enough to enjoy the service.”
With Pivy’s calming presence in his life, Justin enjoyed church, grew in his faith and made his confirmation. His confirmation project, preparing bagged lunches for the homeless, became so meaningful to him that he continues it to this day, eight years later.
Church membership and service developed more confidence, and with that confidence brought forth a purpose. Justin’s talents involve helping others.
Getting Down to Business
Justin has found joy and purpose for his life in the job he has at Flutie Spectrum Enterprises in Framingham, Massachusetts. Former New England Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie, and his wife, Laurie, created the company as an offshoot of their charitable foundation, to help empower those on the autism spectrum.
Justin is one of six employees at the company and loves going to work each day. In fact, he was the company’s very first employee. Allison says the job has boosted Justin’s confidence and given him pride in knowing that he has something he can contribute.
The organization matches work tasks with the skills of the employees, all of whom have autism. Many of the projects include assembly, paper shredding or preparing mailings.
“Justin loves to go to work. He’s proud of what he contributes, and it gives him a purpose. He’s also working with peers, enjoying community and conversation, which is important as he grows into adulthood.”
Allison says, “People think that those with autism spectrum disorders don’t want to communicate, but that’s not true. For those on the spectrum, like Justin, conversations are too fast. It’s tough to struggle with receptive language, expressive language, and then try to put it altogether.”
“Justin, and others with autism want same relationships as everyone else, but communication difficulties often hamper their efforts. That’s why Pivy is so amazing for Justin. She got him to be less anxious around people. She made it easier for him to communicate with others from a young age.”
Pivy also continues to help Justin with changes in routine, and transitions, like coming home from work and shifting from one environment into another.
A Beautiful Bridge
“Justin and Pivy have grown up together. They have this beautiful, special bond, an almost magical connection. Even now, with therapists who come into our home six days a week, in the midst of this life-altering disability called autism, Pivy makes everything better.
“There is something about a service dog; they change the texture of your experience. They are like this natural element that brings normalcy back into your life when things seem so scary and out of control,” Allison explains.
“Justin has a girlfriend. He has a job. He volunteers to bag meals for the homeless. He has a purpose, and Pivy has been instrumental in getting him to this point.”
Pivy was the most beautiful bridge in Justin’s life. She gave him community, the ability to communicate with people.”
Privy is the quiet catalyst behind Justin’s success.
Allison says, “Anyone who’s ever met Justin has been moved by him. He possesses a quality that transcends language. He is a genuine, kind soul and he is very inspirational. His purpose in helping others has inspired others to fulfill their purpose.
“Justin’s sister, Faith wants to pursue a career as a Behavior Analyst. My niece became a speech and language pathologist. One of Justin’s aides at school went back to school to get her teaching degree so she can teach students with autism.”
At some point, Allison says, they may considering training a therapy dog so Justin can continue his mission of helping others while educating people about the healing work of animals.
“Pivy has given us so much, given Justin so much; we just want to give back.”
There’s no greater purpose than that. Thanks, Pivy.
Pivy is sheer perfection, an absolute joy to all of us. She is an amazing and beautiful dog that has helped ease the discomfort of Justin’s autism with hope, laughter, and love. Pivy has made her way to us because of all of your love and training. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You have changed the world through your acts of kindness.
I have written a few vignettes that I hope will give you a glimpse of how Pivy, in such a short time, has helped change our lives:
A Glimpse of Heaven
I recall when Justin was a baby, hearing his laughter. I also remember reading that when you hear a child laugh they say you get a glimpse of heaven. Little did I know then that the sounds of laughter that I heard from my beautiful baby boy would slowly turn into tears, frustration, and silence. Justin is now 10, and even though I remember those emotions I felt when I first realized that Justin had autism, I now know no other way. Justin and his autism are one, but, in my saddest days I still wish that Justin were free from the challenges of this unthinkable disability. That he could be free to have the experiences that typical children do. That he could play catch with his dad or that he could sing.
One Sunday morning, loud and joyous giggles emerge from the living room. Pivy races back and forth with her boundless energy. Her playful movements grab Justin’s attention from his inner thoughts to a place of infectious laughter. My husband Mike, daughter Faith, and I hear the giggles from the other room and we too laugh. Imagining Justin’s face and hearing the interactions between Justin and Pivy delight us all I stop and think… Wow. I am blessed…. I got a glimpse of heaven today!
If I were to teach a class about Autism I would call it predictability 101. Routine, structure, sameness, habits. They all provide a kind of comfort that is not just a need of Justin’s, but a necessity, a clear way for him to navigate through a very confusing world. The anxiety can be at its worst when we leave our home environment and venture out into the unknown.
We walk carefully through the mall; Justin automatically extends his hand out to take Pivy’s leash. He twirls around to place her on his left side. He is comforted and grounded by her presence. She is stability for him, his unspoken cue. He makes his way through overwhelming sights, sounds and smells. We stop in a jagged line. Justin says “pretzel” and all of a sudden, a grandparent, mother, a child, or even a “dog lover” will stop and say hello. All eyes are on Pivy. I think to myself, “they don’t notice Justin’s awkward gait or silly sounds. All they see is Piv – regal and obedient.” I am comforted by these thoughts, remembering back to the days of our most embarrassing community excursions.
Then all of a sudden a child says:
“Can I pet your dog?”
‘‘Oh, this is not my dog,” I reply.
“This is Justin, he is my son and this is HIS dog. You can ask him…”
A little voice quietly says, “Justin, can I pet your dog?”
Justin struggles to look at this new person speaking to him. His eye gaze fleeting, it takes him a few seconds but he responds “Yes.”
The child may ask, “What’s your dog’s name? What kind of dog is she?”
These are wonderful questions, and the best thing of all is that they are PREDICTABLE!! Oh, how Justin’s loves predictability! He gets his pretzel and we make our way back through the mall while saying hello to new friends along the way.
How could I try to help Justin’s classmates better understand him, to not be afraid of him and to be his friend? It was having Pivy with me that helped the kids feel comfortable and connected with Justin through Pivy. I am inspired by this dog and what she can do to help Justin!!
There I stand in a classroom filled with 3rd grade students. They see Pivy and me and excitement fills the air. I am thrilled to answer their numerous questions. It gives me a chance to talk with them about Justin and his autism. What makes Justin different than them, but most importantly what makes them alike. Pivy is perfect. She helps me show them that Justin likes to do a lot of the same things they do, but he just needs some extra help. They relate to my stories about the how difficult and sometimes scary it is going to the doctors. And that Justin has to go a lot. That at times, Justin would love to run up and down the isles of the grocery store, but he cannot. Pivy helps Justin to stay calm when he is at the doctors and not run when he is in the grocery store. The kids can totally understand these kinds of examples.
I see that they are drawn to Justin and Pivy. I talk with them about Justin’s communication and that he wants to play with them, but can’t always say the words. That Justin loves “hi fives” and this is his favorite way to say hello to his friends. Pivy shows the students how to do a “high five.” My hope is that when they see Justin in the hallway, they will say hello too. In weeks to come, the teacher reports that the kids are saying Hi to Justin in the hallways.
Justin’s class was assigned a community service project, and they choose Canines for Disabled Kids. They raised $300.00 and were a true inspiration to their school, and me!!
Written by: Allison Daigle