Autistic Jessica in Crufts parade ring

WHEN 12-year-old Jessica Leeder parades into the ring at Crufts tomorrow she will already be a winner - whatever the judges think of diligent dog Lucy.

WHEN 12-year-old Jessica Leeder parades into the ring at Crufts tomorrow she will already be a winner - whatever the judges think of diligent dog Lucy.

For the schoolgirl, held back in other arenas by her autism, connects on all levels with the animals and exacting demands of dog showing and already has a string of championship wins under her belt.

Talented beyond her years and showing in adult classes, all her problems melt away when it is just one girl and her dog, her usually unsmiling expression breaking out in to a crooked grin, delighting her family who are always looking for chinks in her autism armour.

Her mum Sarah Leeder said this week that her achievement was all the more remarkable given the challenges she faced with her condition which meant she had problems both academically and socially.

Rarely excitable - not even on Christmas Day - and finding little fun in ordinary girlish activities Jessica had found her niche in dog showing and has said she is looking forward to showing Italian greyhound Lucy in the toy group at Birmingham NEC tomorrow.

Mrs Leeder, 34, of Avondale Road, Gorleston, said to the untrained eye it looked like there was little skill involved in dog showing but that actually it was very involved and required a lot of practice and dedication which was part-hobby part-therapy for Jessica whose ability in ring-craft had astounded the Lowestoft group she trains with.

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Having struggled to interest Jessica in anything particular her mum, stepdad Robert and sisters Emily, 15 and Georgia, 11, were happy to travel countrywide helping her to succeed in an area which could also offer her a career in the future.

“She takes it very seriously and has a relationship with the dog that is like a dog whisperer, communicating with it without really saying anything. A normal child would look around and be distracted, perhaps wave at their parents, but even if a bomb went off she would keep with it.

“I am relieved, proud and pleased. I am really glad that she has found this.”

Mrs Leeder said she realised her second baby was different almost immediately. Jessica did not speak until she was four and half, and even then with a pronounced stutter.

“They used to think that girls did not get autism so it was quite hard to get her diagnosed,” she added.

In Jessica's ordered world everything is dictated by tidiness and routine, traits which she has transferred to the dog show world where judges are looking for precision in the way dogs are presented, tiny variations in stance making all the winning difference.

Mrs Leeder, added: “Ever since she was able to talk she has asked for a dog and I have always got her a cuddly one. In the end I gave in and in the summer she decided she wanted to show dogs. As soon as she started showing everyone said how good she was and it has just gone on from there. It has really helped to bring her out of herself. Normally she would not go up to speak to anyone, but she will at a dog show which is great.”

The family are hoping for sponsorship to help towards Jessica's dog showing and the cost of specialist equipment including crates and jackets.

To find out more contact Mrs Leeder on 01493 658895.