SL4 Para badminton player Milena Surreau has been living with autism since the age of four.
Now 24, the Spanish Para Badminton International II 2022 women’s singles finalist does not allow it to hold her back as she seeks to break new ground by leading an association, called Auticea, dedicated to training service dogs for those with autism needs.
For example, Eugene, a white Swiss Shepherd, is trained specifically for Surreau’s autism needs and movement impairments from a brain injury.
“Eugene is trained to create what is called a ‘medical alert’. He is able to smell my blood and identify a problem 10 minutes before I could have a seizure. That way, I know I’m about to have a meltdown and can manage it better, seeking medical help if I need to,” explains Surreau of her dog’s role in her life.
“Eugene is my service dog and best friend.”
Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships and self-regulation. A number of triggers can set off a reaction.
Surreau’s catalysts are loud noises. Before a match, she “blocks out noise, wanting silence”, in preparation.
Eugene helps when she’s not on court.
“If I’m in a noisy place, I can go outside and stay calm,” says Surreau. “Eugene is trained to perform a ‘medical response’. He will cover me and do some deep pressure therapy. With the weight of his body, he will calm me down, as well as my heart rate and blood pressure to stave off the meltdown. He can also prevent dangerous behaviour, like me harming myself, by putting his head on my legs. That’s his most important job.
“Then there’s the guiding side when I cannot deal with too much light and sound. It can be a big challenge.”
But with a superhero dog, no challenge is too big for the duo.
Surreau is salt worker by day, accompanied of course by Eugene. The shuttler, who made her Para badminton debut earlier this year, decided to set up her own association training service dogs for those with specific autism needs at the end of 2020.
“In France, training service dogs for those with autism needs means waiting up to three years, so I decided with my mates that we would do this ourselves,” Surreau says.
“We are training two dogs at the moment and I hope to have more. As long as the dogs are quite large, any breed can be trained.
“I also try to balance my job and Para badminton career. We love what we do. It’s something really important for autistic people.”
The World Autism Awareness Day, observed annually on April 2, aims to raise awareness about the challenges people living with autism encounter on a daily basis. It recognises the unique capabilities of people with autism and emphasises the warm embrace and welcome these abilities deserve at community activities all around the world.