Melia Mullen is nonverbal, but her voice comes through when she laughs her infectious laugh. The 7-year-old Winter Garden girl with the big smile has autism, frequently tries to wander and is extremely drawn to water.
“She doesn't really understand danger at all,” her mother, Amanda Mullen, said. “She's extremely attracted to water, which is really scary. A retention pond, pool, the fountain downtown, we have to keep her from it. Yesterday she was running toward a puddle in the parking lot and I had to grab her. She will run off if she sees something.”
Amanda and Chris Mullen researched service dogs and how one might be able to help their daughter and keep her from danger. They decided on Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a nonprofit that trains Labrador and golden retrievers to work as service dogs.
What's stopping them currently is the $25,000 cost for a dog trained specifically to stop Melia from escaping, remove her from danger and, if she somehow gets away, begin a search-and-rescue mission. The dog could also keep Melia calm in stressful situations.
“This dog is actually trained to stand at the door and block her or block her from traffic if she's attempting to go off the sidewalk,” Mullen said. “They're trained to alert if she's too close to the door, barking if she gets too close.”
The Mullens have raised $1,640, far from the amount needed, so they have planned a benefit concert on Friday, Nov. 10.
Christian rapper Roy Tosh is the headliner. Mullen said Melia likes the beat of rap music but they don't want her listening to some of the R-rated lyrics; they found appropriate songs by Christian rap performers on radio station Z88.3.
Melia attends school with eight other children at ABC Applied Behavior Center for Autism in Winter Garden.
When she's home, her parents must constantly monitor Melia's whereabouts. There are loud alarms on all of the exterior doors, and they just added one to her bedroom window because she tried to open it recently.
The Mullens have bought three or four different GPS watches for Melia in case she gets separated from them, but none has worked. They tested the most recent one at SeaWorld, and when Chris Mullen took Melia to another part of the theme park, Amanda couldn't get a closer pinpoint than “SeaWorld.”
This is hardly comforting to a mother who has been separated from her nonverbal child. And that was when the parents began looking into getting a service dog for their daughter.
In the meantime, they have tried to find ways to let Melia be able to communicate. They experimented with word and picture cards, but she kept losing them They tried teaching her American Sign Language, but she lacks the necessary fine-motor skills in her hands.
Her newest assistant is a mobile speech device that allows her to push buttons to tell people how she's feeling and what she wants to wear and eat.
“She can do feelings like afraid, hungry, mad, sad, tired, yucky,” Mullen said.
She can select her choice of meals and snacks, which have to be gluten-free because Melia has celiac disease.
“She gets frustrated a lot because she can't communicate,” Mullen said.
This device will help Melia convey her wants and needs.
Until enough money is raised for the dog, Melia also has her 5-year-old sister, Aubrey, ready to assist.
“She takes really good care of her sister,” Mullen said.
Recently, when Amanda was showing someone how the speech device works, she pushed the corn button, causing a girl's voice to say the word “corn.”
From the other room comes Aubrey's 5-year-old voice: “Do you need me to get some corn?”