20 December 2023

Greg Rutherford: It’s ‘wonderful’ seeing the connection my autistic child has with our dogs

20 December 2023

There’s not much Greg Rutherford hasn’t faced – and often succeeded at.

He’s been an Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth champion long jumper, won Celebrity MasterChef, competed on Strictly Come Dancing, and is about to take part in Dancing On Ice.

But his latest test has had nothing to to with athletics or TV – as one of his children was recently diagnosed with autism.

Speaking about the diagnosis, the father-of-three, who doesn’t want to disclose which of his children has autism to protect their privacy, says: “We always knew there were definitely challenges, and we’ve gone through the process this year, and that just confirmed really what we already knew.

“But the school our child is at is doing a brilliant job, and has support staff there all the time, which is wonderful. Our child is doing really well, which is great to see,” adds the 37-year-old.

Rutherford – who shares Milo, aged nine, Rex, six, and Daphne, two-and-a-half, with his fiancée Susie Verrill – says the fact there’s now much greater understanding about autism has really helped both affected kids and their families.

“I think now there’s more understanding of some of the behaviours, it means our child gets what’s needed out of school, while learning, and that’s just brilliant. When I look back to my own childhood, I think the problem children faced was they were just considered naughty or disruptive, but now there’s actually understanding about what’s going on.

“It’s incredible the way our child manages to focus on things – understanding them better has been brilliant for everybody.”

What’s also brilliant, he adds, is the difference the family’s two dogs make to his child’s wellbeing and progress. This first-hand experience has also now led Rutherford to support the charity Dogs for Good, which trains dogs to help people with a range of disabilities and conditions, including autism.

Rutherford, who has two dogs – Gus, a 10-year-old Northern Inuit, and Clunkers, a five-month-old whippet puppy – says: “I see the impact they have on our family, especially on our child who’s autistic.

“We’ve found the dogs are a brilliant method of calming and interacting – they always have been. When our child is around the dogs, it’s wonderful watching how much their company and that connection is needed to relax.”

The former athlete relates how the family recently set off for a day at a theme park, which never happened because their car broke down. “We had a really frustrating day,” he recalls, “where we ended up getting stranded for eight hours after our car broke down, and our autistic child was hyper-stimulated by it, and was basically, for eight hours, just completely bouncing off the walls trying to figure out the changes, and everything else.

“But we got home, and the first thing you see our child do is relax while stroking the dogs, and spending time with them. It’s lovely to see those bonds grow – they’re always so incredibly strong, and they really do help.

“It really is an amazing thing watching a child interacting that way, effectively using the animals to calm themselves down. It’s brilliant.”

All three children love going on walks with the dogs too. “I often go running up the steps in the woods and things like that, and the kids always come along,” says Rutherford. “We put Daphne in a running pushchair for off-roading and she just comes with me, and gets out if we stop anywhere and runs around, then I put her back in and keep walking. But they’re fully involved at all times, and it’s a really good thing.

“We take our autistic child out in nature with the dogs, and it really is a calming influence, burning off a little bit of energy and everything else as well.”

But no matter how much energy the kids and dogs burn on their family walks, they definitely won’t be getting as much of a workout as their dad, who’s currently training hard before taking part in the next series of Dancing On Ice.

“That’s what I spend most of my time on at the moment,” he says. “It’s quite an amazing experience.”

So, what’s his skating like?

“I had skated a little bit previously, a little bit as a child – that was about 30 years ago,” he says. “So I could just about stand on the ice – I wasn’t that capable – but we’ve been working really hard for six weeks or so now, and I can officially say I can skate.

“Myself and my partner [he’s paired with Vanessa James on the show], we’re very, very excited about the idea of trying to perform certain tricks on the show that have never been done before. So we’re trying to do some first-timers. Hopefully it goes well, and hopefully I stay on the show long enough to do some exciting things.”

What do the kids think about their dad ice skating?

“They really love it – they love watching, my daughter in particular. I show her the videos, and then she wants to watch [Vanessa] on YouTube and all that sort of stuff. It’s lovely to see.

“I love a challenge,” Rutherford admits with a chuckle. “I love pushing and learning new things – I think my whole family expects that from me nowadays. There’s always something I’m trying, or giving a go or working towards, and it just so happens that ice skating is the current one.”

Greg Rutherford is supporting the Dogs for Good Winter Appeal, which aims to raise funds to help support more families with autistic children. Visit dogsforgood.org.

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