Wednesday 7 December 2016

Girl's best friend... how special dog helps overcome autism

Because she lives with autism, Layla Farrell struggles to make sense of the world that she inhabits. Her mother Edel says that a very special dog is helping this little girl to deal with some of the challenges she faces

Joy Orpen

Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30

Stephen, Layla and Edel Farrell with Layla's service dog, Google. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Stephen, Layla and Edel Farrell with Layla's service dog, Google. Photo: Gerry Mooney

When Layla Farrell goes for a walk, she is attached to a rather large dog called Google. Without him, outings would just not be possible. For this six-year-old has autism, and in her case, that results in all kinds of unusual behaviours.

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"Layla doesn't walk, she runs," says her mother, Edel (36). "So going out with her can be an absolute nightmare. She also gets very agitated and screams all the time." Even staying at home has inherent problems. There are chains on the doors and windows, to stop Layla slipping outside. When she was three, she climbed on to the canopy roof of their Swords home, and builder dad Stephen (37) and brother Karl (18) had to climb on top of a van to rescue her. Water is another obsession, so she constantly floods the bathroom, causing damage to the sitting room below. It's an endless struggle to keep this little girl safe. And it's an ongoing battle to get her the supports and services she needs.

Edel says Layla's birth was pretty straightforward, but a day later, Layla's lungs collapsed, and she had to spend a week in hospital being treated for infection. "She was fine after that, and behaved like a normal baby," says Edel.

But 10 months down the line, she and Stephen realised that something was terribly wrong. "When I'd take her to public places, she'd scream her head off," Edel says. "The public health nurse thought she might have a hearing impairment. So when a problem was found, she was referred to a specialist. Grommets were inserted, but shortly after, the screaming resumed; we were back to square one."

When she was two, Layla's hearing was tested again and found to be perfectly normal. So the next step was a visit to a paediatrician, who then called for assessments by a speech-and-language therapist, an occupational therapist, and a psychologist. The results of the tests suggested autism. However, there was a major obstacle. "They said she was too young to be officially diagnosed with autism," recalls Edel.

"But we desperately needed a diagnosis, so we could get supports, but we just couldn't get one. Even though she was already three, Layla was still in nappies, still on baby milk, and she hadn't even begun to eat baby food. When you brought her out, she would scream, she'd bite you, grab your hair and pull stuff off the shelves. People would stare and think that she was a very bold child."

In desperation, the Farrells took Layla to an eminent paediatrician at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, and to a private psychologist. Contrary to previous experiences, these particular experts were prepared to give an official diagnosis of autism. So finally, armed with irrefutable proof, the Farrells were able to access a tuition grant which enabled them to send Layla to Jonix Educational Services, which runs pre-schools around the country for children diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). "She started there when she was three," says Edel. "There were six children in the class, with four staff members. They got Layla out of nappies; she began to understand simple commands, and they got her talking." She adds that Layla is now happy in a special class at the local primary school.

Soon after this condition became the prime suspect, Edel began searching the internet for information. "I came across My Canine Companion," she says. "They provide dogs to help people with disabilities, especially children and young adults with autism. Each dog costs about €10,000 to train; it's done over a two-year period."

Edel made an application, and, 10 months later, she learned that it had been successful. Google, a labradoodle - a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle - was assigned to them. Layla immediately fell in love with him. So the Farrells went to puppy-training classes and when he was two, Google returned to My Canine Companion for intensive training as a service dog. Just before Christmas last year, he came bouncing back into their lives. "Google was delighted to be home," says Edel. "That was a really great Christmas."

She explains that when they go out, Layla wears a harness and is strapped to the dog, and that makes her feel more secure. But Edel points out that the adjustment didn't happen overnight. "There is no doubt he has an effect on her. She finds it very calming to feel his thick, soft, curly hair, and she always has her hand in his coat when they are walking. Once she's linked to him, I know she is secure and comfortable, and can be herself," Edel explains.

"Google is now our lifeline to freedom. He takes so much pressure off the family, and has actually brought us all together. In the past, Karl and our daughter, Chloe (13) wouldn't want to come out with us, because of all the screaming and challenging behaviour. But now they are much happier to do so. And because people can see that Google is Layla's service dog, they are more understanding of her problems."

Things have worked out so well that the Farrells are going to Lanzarote on holiday. Because they have a very limited budget, they are going in December, a a time when the prices for flights and accommodation are rock bottom. But even if the weather isn't great, they don't care. "We went to Spain last year and it was a disaster," says Edel. "We never left the villa. This time we're taking Google, and that should make a huge difference."

My Canine Companion is just one of 3,500 good causes that has benefited from Tesco's Community Fund. Customers are given blue tokens, which they can assign to one of three local causes, which change regularly. Every eight weeks, nominated charities receive a percentage from their local Tesco store, of up to €1,000, which is donated by the retailer. The amount they get depends on how many blue tokens they receive from the public as they shop. Organisations wishing to be nominated should contact their local Tesco.

My Canine Companion was actually nominated 29 times in different stores (and different areas), receiving €10k in total across counties Meath, Tipperary, Wicklow, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Cork, Donegal and Dublin.

Thanks to My Canine Companion, Tesco, and Google the dog, the Farrells are more able to enjoy their daughter's very special attributes.

"She's so lovable," says Edel. "She likes cuddles, she really loves Google and she gets friends to dance and to hug each other when we have a party. She can be quite adorable."

For more information, contact My Canine Companion, tel: (021) 453-0536, or see mycaninecompanion.ie

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