VILLA GROVE – For the first year-and-a-half of his life, Kaleb Drew did all the typical things babies do.
He babbled. He said "mama" and "dada" and grasped his toys.
And then, suddenly, "he just stopped," his mother, Nichelle Drew, said.
She and her husband, Brad, didn't learn why their second child had suddenly withdrawn until he was 2 and diagnosed with autism.
Now, the Drews are pinning their hopes on man's best friend to help draw Kaleb out of his own world and back into theirs.
They have lined up a service dog through Autism Service Dogs of America to be Kaleb's constant companion – to go to school with him every day, sleep beside him every night, calm him and even serve as a bridge between him and other people.
The dog is being specially trained at a facility in Oregon, where Autism Service Dogs of America is based, and Kaleb has already been evaluated and found to be a candidate who could be helped by a service dog, according to Priscilla Taylor, the organization's founder.
Autism is a developmental disability that appears in early childhood and impairs the ability to communicate and interact with others.
Kaleb, who is now 5 and set to start kindergarten in Villa Grove in the fall, is considered high-functioning, but he is mostly non-verbal, his mother said.
"He can repeat what we say, but if we ask him a question he doesn't answer," Nichelle said.
She describes her son as a lovable, intelligent child, but "it's the communication barrier that slows us all down," she said.
Kaleb has almost no interaction with other children, with the exception of his 6-year-old sister, Kelsey. And he has major problems with transitions, such as leaving the house to go to school or church. Often, he just runs away, Nichelle said, "and he's very fast."
And Kaleb's running isn't confined to the daytime. He typically gets up in the middle of the night and runs around the house, and sometimes runs out of the house. So far, none of the locks the Drews have installed has managed to keep him in. Nor have the weighted blankets that are intended to have a calming effect managed to keep him in bed, Nichelle said.
And there are more potential dangers outside than strangers and traffic: The family lives by railroad tracks and a creek in Villa Grove, Nichelle said. To keep Kaleb safe, she said, she, her husband and a cousin take turns staying awake with him.
A service dog would be not only a companion for Kaleb but a watchdog who would try to stop Kaleb from running away, then alert the family if he did get out of the house and help find him through scent, she said.
A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine who is currently at home with her three children, Nichelle Drew said she heard about the possibility of service dogs for children with autism through contacts at the veterinary school.
The Oregon organization will have a dog available for Kaleb early next year, leaving the family some time to raise the approximately $13,500 cost of the dog, plus the expenses of going to Oregon for training and flying a trainer back to their home for the further training that is required, Nichelle said. She has planned a fundraiser for next month, and if it's successful, she plans to share any excess money raised to help other families who need help affording a service dog for a child with autism, she said.
The cost is so high because the expense of training the dogs is so high, Taylor said. Most of the dogs are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and Golden/Lab mixes, and it takes two years to get them trained.
Taylor says the concept of using service dogs for children with autism began in Canada about 11 years ago. She went there to train and started her own organization in 2002. She has placed about 20 dogs so far, but is gradually building up the number each year in hope of placing about 30 a year.
Taylor, by the way, doesn't earn her living through service dogs. A former special-eduction teacher-turned-attorney, she covers her own living expenses with a private law practice, she said.
Her organization has had a couple of applications from adults with autism, she said, but she is focusing for now on placing dogs with children with autism who run away.
"We've had families that haven't gone out in five years because of the kid," she said. "For once, they can do everything as a family."
In addition to helping keep the children safe, the dogs have a calming effect on their young companions, who come to learn outbursts upset their canine buddies. The dogs can even help the children relate better to other people, Taylor said.
Once, she said, a woman told her she overheard her child with autism say, "I love you" to his service dog.
Kaleb is very affectionate with animals, his mother said, and Taylor's organization has assured her these dogs are trained to handle "extreme loving."
Help Kaleb get a service dog
A fundraiser to help cover the cost of an autism service dog for Kaleb Drew has been set for Aug. 16.
It will include a poker run, dinner, auction and concert, with the ride starting at 11 a.m. in both Urbana and Mount Vernon.
The dinner, auction and concert will all take place at the end of the ride at the Effingham County Fair Grounds in Altamont.
Here's how to take part:
— All motorcycles and vehicles are welcome to take part in the ride, which will depart from Bunny's Tavern in Urbana at 11 a.m. Registration starts at 10 a.m.
— The cost is $25 per person and $45 per couple for the ride, and that includes the dinner, entertainment and raffles throughout the ride. (Those wishing to skip the dinner and entertainment pay $10 less.)
— Those registering in advance also pay less: $20 per person or $35 per couple.
— Anyone can attend the dinner, auction and bands without the ride for $10 per person.
— Camping is available at the fairgrounds, and there will be vehicles at each starting point to haul camping gear.
— All donations are accepted through the Kaleb Drew trust fund at First Mid-Illinois Bank & Trust.
— Call the Drew family at 832-8549 for information and advance registration.