A boy’s best friend
By Dephne Lockyer, Telegraph Media Group
Dale Gardner’s parents despaired when he was born with severe autism – until a golden retriever unlocked his secret world. … Another family might have opted to institutionalise Dale, but that was never an option for the Gardners. Instead, they dared to hope they might help their son and, during a visit to relatives at a Perthshire farm, they noticed how he seemed to connect with some puppies there. They decided to get him a pet of his own. Enter Henry.
“We weren’t hoping for any miracles, we just wanted Dale to have some company. I used to despair about his loneliness,” says Nuala. “But Henry turned out to be this wonderful, five-star educational resource. We could never have predicted how he would change our lives.”
Dale himself describes the dog as “friendly, with lovely, kind eyes”. “He was my dog and I loved him,” Dale says. “He died in April this year and even though I love our new dog (also called Henry) it was terrible for me. The first Henry was special.”
At times, Nuala and Jamie would find them snuggled together in the dog basket. That Henry introduced Dale to the concept of love and empathy – one that autism sufferers struggle with – is miraculous in itself but there was more. During one of the “proud” explosions, Jamie struck on the idea of trying to communicate with Dale through the dog. “I said, ‘Dale, this is Henry talking. I wish you’d stop that. It’s upsetting me.’ Instantly, Dale stopped raging and took Henry outside to play. Slowly, Dale’s behaviour improved. He no longer fought over bedtime rituals like getting into his pyjamas and he was finally toilet trained. Then, most extraordinarily of all, he began to express love for his parents.
“The most basic need of a mother is to love their child and to get some love back. Not to have it is the cruellest thing in the world,” Nuala says. “Every mother watching the drama will understand the elation when the son is finally able to say the words, even though he uses his dog as a conduit.”
AFTER THOMAS: The film based on the Gardner Family’s True Story
Six-year-old Kyle Graham is scared. Not of monsters under the bed, but of just about everything. And even worse, he can’t communicate his fears. His mother Nicola knows that Kyle wants to be left alone, safe and secure in his autistic world. But she also fears for his future if he continues to reject all emotional interaction. Her fierce determination to break into Kyle’s world has placed an intolerable strain on her marriage. Her husband Rob, although equally devoted to his son, is frustrated by Nicola’s relentless drive to improve Kyle’s condition and her resistance to putting Kyle into a highly reputable boarding school for autistic children.Thomas, a golden retriever puppy, is a last desperate attempt. Although Nicola had heard that some autistic children improved with pets, nothing could prepare Nicola and Rob for how Thomas unlocks the door to a personality they never knew their son had. What follows is a fascinating and moving tale of two parents who, at breaking point, find hope they never dared to dream. Gritty and real, funny and heart-warming, After Thomas is an uplifting and moving true story.The real family behind the story: Nuala and James Gardner – on whom Nicola and Rob Graham are based – live in a seaside town in Scotland with son Dale (Kyle), who is now 18, and their six-year-old daughter Amy. Both Dale and Amy were diagnosed with autism as toddlers, with Dale’s diagnosis being a long, arduous task at a time when autism was not widely understood. After Thomas is the story of Dale’s remarkable development through his bond with their pet dog Henry, named after his favorite engine in Thomas The Tank Engine but renamed Thomas in the film. He is unrecognizable from the boy he was during the period the film depicts – the confident, mature and friendly teenager who plays guitar in a band and works voluntarily with young Scouts is testament to the incredible impact Henry (Thomas) had on his life.
Nuala Gardner details how this story first came to writer Lindsey Hill’s attention when the family entered their Golden Retriever into a competition:
I entered what I thought was just a small competition through Winalot dog food. You had to write about why your dog was a ‘real life champ’ and so I wrote about the impact Henry had made on Dale. We won the competition and, subsequently, were approached by Pet Power with Anthea Turner. Pet Power was an amalgamation of heart-warming stories about the impact animals had had on people’s lives. We were a small aspect of that, with a 15 minute piece which briefly covered our story. Lindsey was one of the many thousands who watched it, and she could see that there was more to the story and got in touch with us. Initially, there was a double edged sword of excitement and reservation. However, from that very initial conversation, a nine-year relationship with Lindsey was formed.
After Thomas is the first one-off drama script from former insolvency lawyer Lindsey Hill. She explains how she came across this moving true story:
One evening early in 1997, I caught an episode of Pet Power and saw the Gardner family’s story. I sat there with tears rolling down my face; I too had a golden retriever puppy – who was lying at my feet – so I knew just how special they could be and what incredible bonds you can develop with them. About an hour later I had a ‘light bulb moment’. If the story could move me like that, what effect might it have on other people? ‘When I finally got to talk to the family, they were unbelievably open and candid. They had thought about it long and hard and decided that if it could possibly help other families, they would love to work with me on bringing their story to a wider audience. At this point Dale was a little boy, and they invited me to visit them at their home in Scotland. They had two conditions: that I stay at their house rather than in a hotel and that I take my dog too. In the end I went up twice, staying for ten days in total.
After Thomas can be seen below in the following clips: