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Pig changes autistic child’s life

PUBLISHED: 12:11 31 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:11 31 October 2016

Chester the pig in his pen at the Bailey-Merritts' home near Buckfastleigh

Chester the pig in his pen at the Bailey-Merritts' home near Buckfastleigh

Matt Austin

Devon mum Jo Bailey has published a book telling the story of how a mischievous pig called Chester transformed their family’s lives; particularly that of her autistic son Sam, Laura Dale writes

JO ANSWERS the door, a bundle of excitement and nerves. She immediately apologises for having the television on in the background, but she’s about to appear on This Morning. She settles into the chair and we all keep half an eye on the screen, ready to pause our interview to watch her TV debut.

It’s a big moment for the mum of two whose life has been a series of personal battles, both large and small, to get to where she is today, a published author. Jo explains: “I was approached by a ghost writer Ruth Kelly, who has had a string of Sunday Times best sellers. She had been looking to write a book about a pig and spent a month looking for a family she wanted to write about. She found us through Pennywell Farm, which is where we got Chester from.”

Chester, who was meant to be a micro-pig and grow no bigger than a Cocker Spaniel, is the family’s pet pig who has helped Jo’s son Sam cope with his autism. Now nearly two metres long and with little white tusks, Chester lives in a pen at the bottom of the garden.

His adoption by the family came about after Sam showed an affinity with the little ginger pig on a visit to Pennywell Farm, a farm tourist attraction just outside Buckfastleigh and near the Bailey-Merritt’s current home. Jo recalls: “I noticed that this little micro pig had a really calming affect on Sam, who has high anxiety levels. He bonded with this little ginger piglet, which he held in the crook of his arm.” As a result, Jo and her now husband Darren decided to purchase the piglet for Sam. “The lovely thing was Sam started to show some empathy; he picked the spot where the dog basket we bought for Chester would go, under the radiator so the piglet would be warm – he showed caring and thinking of others which was so rare.”

For the first three months the piglet lived in the house and was house trained using grapes, but at two months old a rapidly growing Chester started to “run rings” around the family, causing havoc in the family home. “The bigger he got, the naughtier he got and for the first time in years I saw Sam really laugh and his confidence grew,” Jo smiles.

Sam and Jo with the book 'Sam and Chester', which tells the story of how a mischievous pig called Chester transformed the life of Jo's autistic son SamSam and Jo with the book 'Sam and Chester', which tells the story of how a mischievous pig called Chester transformed the life of Jo's autistic son Sam

It’s difficult to put the impact of Sam’s relationship with Chester into perspective, but when Jo, Darren and her boys moved from Spain, Sam was five years old and non verbal. He had gone from a normally developing baby and a bilingual toddler to a completely shut down little boy who lost all of his language, stopped feeding himself, craved repetition and was obsessed with putting objects in straight lines.

Jo reveals: “I was terrified he would end up in a psychiatric ward – it was really frightening.” Jo had Sam tested for everything, spending about £11,000 of her own money and trying out all kinds of diets and eliminating certain substances found in household products and toiletries.

Sam was finally diagnosed with autism and Jo realised there wasn’t the right provision in place for Sam in the provincial Spanish school he attended, so in 2008 Jo decided to return to the UK where she could get better support for Sam.

The book covers much of Sam and Chester’s journey and is funny, heart-warming and emotive in turns, but it skims over a painful end to their life in Spain with the death of Jo’s father and uncle to cancer; and it doesn’t reflect Jo’s own story of survival following relationship troubles, a painful road to diagnosis for Sam, divorce, followed by a legally complicated return to the UK.

Jo’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder in 2011 and subsequent therapy, and the incredible support of her husband Darren, are side notes to a story which is essentially about a boy and his pet pig. It’s only in speaking with Jo and getting the context of the story ‘behind the story’ that you can begin to fully understand the impact of Chester on not just Sam’s life, but on that of the whole family. “We love Chester as well. He is such a lovely character and so sweet natured,” says Jo.

Jo Bailey's book 'Sam and Chester', which tells the story of how a mischievous pig called Chester transformed the life of Jo's autistic son SamJo Bailey's book 'Sam and Chester', which tells the story of how a mischievous pig called Chester transformed the life of Jo's autistic son Sam

Chester has not only helped a little boy with autism to become more empathetic, to have a better understanding of relationships and to grow in confidence, he has continues to help Sam to make sense of the world. Jo explains: “It’s incredible what has happened recently. When Sam was making the transition from primary school to secondary school we tried to prepare him as much as possible for the challenges, but Sam regressed very quickly. His anxiety levels were very high – he was physically shaking with anxiety.” It was introducing support workers to Chester which helped Sam to talk about his fears relating to starting secondary school.

Although Sam has (perhaps somewhat surprisingly) taken part in interviews and publicity surrounding the book, Chester has been less enthusiastic and Jo tells me he has attacked every reporter that’s gone into the pen – including booting over a photographer from a national tabloid newspaper. “He’s old and grumpy and he doesn’t like publicity,” laughs Jo. She continues: “For me, the book has been an amazing opportunity to put a message out about autism. We are all different and autism means that Sam struggles with certain things, but autism doesn’t define who Sam is. I want Sam to be integrated into society and to achieve his full potential, but people need to understand autism in order for that to happen.” Thankfully in Chester they have found not just a beloved family pet, but a way of getting that important message out.

Sam & Chester costs £12.99 and is available to buy from a number of outlets including Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles, WHSmith.

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