Assistance dog opens up new world for autistic 5-year-old after fundraising push.

For the Stephenson family, safety fears and unpleasant looks were a big part of life because their 5-year-old autistic boy could wander off or have a tantrum-like meltdown any time.

But now, thanks to a $20,000 fundraising effort, young Tom of Auckland's Red Beach has an assistance labrador, Libby, making an "amazing" difference to family life.

"We basically didn't do anything before," Tom's mother, Louise, said. "We'd drive the kids to school, pick them up from school, come home.

"We'd put Tom in a child-sized buggy when we could but when that wasn't possible, I had to be really hands-on with him because he has no concept of danger."


Going into shops and eateries and doing family activities was challenging. "Tom doesn't cope well with lots of noise and people, and he was getting beyond the cute toddler stage where people are forgiving.

"He has meltdowns when his senses go into overdrive, which come across as tantrums," Mrs Stephenson said. "People would think 'what a brat, what are his parents doing,' and give us not very nice looks."

After hearing about the difference an assistance dog could make, Mrs Stephenson raised money through Givealittle, a barbecue at The Warehouse and a a Ladies' Evening Out at Tom's school.

The final $1500 was raised through Mike Hosking Breakfast and ASB's Good as Gold campaign.

Libby arrived on February 4.

"It's been amazing," Mrs Stephenson said. "We now walk part of the way to school with Tom attached to Libby by a belt and me holding on to her lead.

"Tom carries his own schoolbag, can push the button to cross the road, and is talking more, saying Libby's name and repeating her commands."

The family have also been able to do "normal" things with relative ease. "If Tom starts to get agitated, I talk to him and talk to Libby, and get him to stroke her so he calms down ... He's only had one meltdown since he's had her and we managed to calm him down far faster than in the past."

The whole family loved Libby and strangers now had an instant understanding, she said.

"It's a new way of life for all of us. Tom's brother Jacob has cerebral palsy and goes to the local Special Olympics equestrian club.

"It used to be quite hard for us to get to it because the horses stressed Tom out so someone had to stay home with him but now we can sit and watch with Libby."

An Assistance Dogs New Zealand instructor visits the family regularly, with the long-term goal of Tom being able to walk Libby independently.

"That could be a while off but we're just so happy and grateful to everyone who has helped us get to this stage," Mrs Stephenson said.