A mother has revealed how buying a pet micro pig for her autistic son dramatically changed the course of his condition.
Jo Bailey, a 49-year-old mum-of-two from Deancombe in South Devon, watched her son Sam, now 14, go from being a chatty, sociable toddler to totally withdrawn and losing his language skills in just a few weeks, reports the Daily Mail.
After his diagnosis, the family, struggling to deal with Sam's increasingly distressed behaviour, took him to a miniature pig farm and were astonished at how spending time just a brief time with a small ginger pig named Chester helped to calm Sam down.
After Sam was born in Spain in 2003, Jo, who's written a book about Sam and Chester's bond, says her son initially reached all of his developmental milestones and even began walking and using new words.
However, just after he turned 2 years old, Jo, who has another son, William, now 12, noticed small changes in her son's behaviour; namely an obsession with repetition and, in particular, looking at straight lines or edges with one eye closed.
After raising her concerns with a Spanish paediatrician, Jo was initially reassured that the arrival of younger brother William had simply unsettled him.
However, Sam's behaviour continued and he began to withdraw further; he stopped speaking and would retreat to the comfort of the sofa, where he would rub one earlobe. He was also prone to "almighty" meltdowns if put into a situation that he wasn't used to.
When a child psychologist confirmed that Sam was indeed autistic, Jo says her heart broke into "a million pieces" at what the future might hold for her son.
After her marriage to the boys father broke down shortly after Sam's diagnosis, Jo returned to the UK, where she met oil rig health and safety manager Darren, 50.
The couple settled in South Devon and began learning how to live with Sam's condition, which now encompassed phobias and frequent meltdowns at home, despite making progress at school.
At 5, Sam was still non-verbal and Jo and Darren decided that a pet might offer some comfort to him. After reading about the calming effects that miniature pigs can bring to humans, the couple took Sam to visit Pennywell farm, close to where they live.
Sam, who was flapping his arms and was agitated, stepped into the pen to meet a tiny ginger piglet. As soon as the youngster held Chester, who's now 8, he became calm.
Jo says: "Having witnessed this remarkable change in Sam, we decided we would purchase Chester. After much research into micro pigs and pig-keeping and in-depth discussions with the farmer over the following 8 weeks (we also met Chester's parents who were the size of cocker spaniels), papers were exchanged and we became Chester's proud new owners."
The family discovered that Chester was anything but a micro pig and he now weighs in at a whopping 114 kilograms.
The pair quickly became inseparable and Sam's personality slowly began to shine through once more. The pig has helped Jo's son learn empathy, too, as he now considers how other people might be feeling, based around his love of Chester.
Jo told the Telegraph: "I'll say, 'How do you think Chester is feeling today? What do you think Chester is thinking?"
Alongside Chester, Sam is also extremely close to his brother William, now 12.
Jo explains: "There's something very grounded about siblings of children with special needs. William displays a maturity far beyond his 12 years."
'We have never expected him to look after Sam; it is something that he has just done and got on with without ever complaining."
The future for Sam, who has the verbal comprehension skills of an 8-year-old, is bright. He's in a mainstream secondary school and is studying for six GCSEs, three of which are based around art. He also spends time volunteering at Pennywell farm.
Sam's school is a Communication & Interaction Resource Base (CAIRB) where he receives one-on-one attention.
Classmates are educated about Sam's condition and anyone who's found to be unkind is made to watch a documentary on autism.
Jo says of the decades that lie ahead: "With Sam, it's a case of making small steps and planning ahead for his future, but gently nudging him out there into society and pushing him outside of his comfort zone."
"He certainly hopes he can work with animals when he grows up, in fact he says he'd like to work full-time at Pennywell with the piglets he loves so much."