It's never easy to lose a faithful and beloved pet, but it was especially difficult for eight-year-old Kristin Maggio, whose Australian Shepherd therapy dog, Holly, had been by her side her whole life. Kristin, who is autistic, was initially unable to express her grief through words. Instead, she communicated through art - drawing and painting her memories of Holly and demonstrating the special bond they shared. Kristin's parents, Mike and Susan Maggio, gathered Kristin's renderings of Holly, helped her to add appropriate captions, and turned them into a book and a tribute to a much-loved dog . "That's what My Dog Holly is," Susan explains. "It's Kristin's way of saying goodbye to a friend."
Holly was with the Maggios for five years before Kristin was born. Susan recalls bringing Holly along when she'd visit her grandfather in a nursing home. "She brought a lot of joy to my grandfather and all of the residents there," she says. "At one visit, a resident who had not spoken for the entire three years he had been there lit up and asked if he could give Holly a biscuit. The nurses were shocked. Holly was a great gift to many people."
Kristin and Holly's story started the day the Maggios brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital in 2006. "Holly was drawn to her and watched over her," says Susan. "Wherever Kristin was, Holly was. They were inseparable." Early on, Susan recognized that something was different about her baby. "She was completely nonverbal. She didn't even have frontal sounds, like 'mama.' There was nothing." Kristin experienced other delays as well. "Watching Kristin work so hard to do things that are so natural for you and me was an eye opener on so many levels," says Susan.
From birth to age four, Kristin was nonverbal. Like many people on the autism spectrum, she's particularly sensitive to sounds, but she was unable to express that to her parents without words. "One day she did a drawing of all the sounds that hurt her ears and it all made sense," says Susan. "If Kristin hadn't made that drawing for us, we wouldn't have understood what she was experiencing so early on." From then on, Kristin used her art to say what she couldn't say with words.
Susan says she grew concerned by Kristin's behavior immediately after Holly's death. "Kristin wasn't talking about Holly and she wasn't talking at all, about anything," she explains. Eventually, Kristin did a painting of her pet, which later became the cover for My Dog Holly. That one painting was followed by drawing after drawing after drawing. "She was actually tossing them over her shoulder as she completed each one," says Susan. "There was a pile of papers on the floor. When I gathered them together, I saw that the drawings depicted scenes from Kristin's life with Holly. It was like looking through a photo album." Amazingly, after finishing her drawings, Kristin spoke. "She said, 'I wish everyone had a Holly like me,'" Susan recalls.
According to Susan, parents of nonverbal children need to learn how to listen differently. "I think there's a misconception that some nonverbal children don't comprehend things simply because they can't verbally express themselves," she says. "But without any spoken words at all, the drawings she did of Holly showed tremendous comprehension of loss and spoke volumes. Even when she had no words, she was still communicating in a very different way."
My Dog Holly has become more than a loving memorial to a pet. It’s also a triumph of one young girl’s struggle to rise above the challenges she faces every day. “I had no idea that the little girl who worked so hard because of so many delays would one day be getting letters from other children and families with autism sharing how inspired they are by her,” says Susan.
Now nine years old, Kristin has illustrated a second book, The Glitter Wand and a Frog Named Aady Lou, and there are more books to come, including a series called Antics with Autumn and a Dog Named Duke, which features Kristin’s adventures with the two dogs she has now. But Holly will always have a special place in her heart. “I loved playing dress up with Holly and reading to her,” Kristin says. “Watching movies on our sleeping bag was so much fun. I loved my Holly.” Besides creating books, Kristin loves to draw and play outside. “I like reading books to my dogs and watching black and white movies,” she says. “I love going places like the science museum, botanical gardens, and Disney World. I also love Star Wars and anything Disney.”
Half of the proceeds from the sales of Kristin’s books will go to Autism Services, an organization known for its work with the autistic population and also for its signature arts program. The organization recently hosted a solo art exhibit of Kristin’s work. Susan says she especially appreciates the way Autism Services celebrates the individual. “It allows children and adults with autism to be themselves and express their unique strengths,” she says. “Because of all the help and support they give to families like ours, it’s an honor to be able to support them in any way we can.”
The Maggio family has one clear mission. “We want to show the world that people with autism are more than a diagnosis,” says Susan. She also says people often rush to label those who don’t fit the standard mold. “I think it’s easy to hear that someone has autism, or any difference or challenge, and not look beyond that,” she says. “When people do this, they completely miss seeing the individual, the person. Kristin is a very happy, sweet, and creative little girl who happens to live with autism on a daily basis. Life has given people with autism a different journey than you and me. It would be nice if people could look past the diagnosis.”
Kristin’s books are available at Amazon.com or on her website at www.kristinsartavenue.com.
Article by Melissa Fales, Story Monsters Ink magazine, February 2016. Read full article and more at www.StoryMonsters.com.
Find us on Facebook!