A child’s best friend
National Lottery funding helps dog charity team up canine carers with autistic children
Parents of children with autism know that helping hands can make a big difference, but a growing number are finding that helping paws are even better.
Lesa Gilligan from Portlaoise is one of them. Her son Luke was diagnosed with the complex behavioural disorder when he was just two-years-old and like many autistic children, has problems with communication and can be more than a handful when he gets upset.
“Luke was a big escape artist,” says Lesa. “He’d jump out of windows and it didn’t matter if they were at the top or the bottom of the house.
Family days out with Luke’s siblings, Katie (11) and Ryan (5), were almost impossible as Lesa and husband Paul couldn’t predict when Luke would have a meltdown, or even what was likely to spark one off.
“If we were out shopping he’d be running through the car park and it wouldn’t matter what cars were coming. He wouldn’t stop at a kerb and check for traffic, he’d just run out - and we had a few near misses.
“If he got upset by anything he would just run and hide. I’d be calling for him and I’d sometimes have to get help to find him, but he’d just stay in hiding until he calmed down.”
Autism is an invisible disability, with no outward signs to identify affected children, and this often makes it difficult for parents when their child has a meltdown in public.
“You can’t always tell when there’s a nine-year-old or a 15-year-old child rolling around the floor in the supermarket that there’s something wrong,” Lesa explains.
“People think it’s just a very bold child but it’s just something is after triggering them off. Sometimes even I don’t understand what the trigger is.
“There was flickering light in a supermarket that used to set Luke off, but it took me a long time to figure out why he was acting out under this light.”
As Luke got older communication improved and he could understand speech if it was delivered slowly, clearly and in short sentences. He started mainstream school but his destructive tendencies made him a target for bullying.
When he was three, Lesa and Paul put Luke on the list for an assistance dog with Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (AADI), a small Cork based charity that is part funded by the National Lottery and is dedicated to training dogs to help children like Luke.
However, there’s huge demand for the specially trained dogs and it was almost three years before they reached the top of the list. By then the Gilligans had adjusted to Luke’s condition, and with his speech improving wondered should they leave the dog for another family.
“Luke was improving but then we had a couple of incidents and we knew we definitely had to get the dog and we’ve been grateful ever since,” Lesa says.
"Pairing a family with an assistance dog isn’t easy. It takes time, dedication and patience, but even after months of extensive training it doesn’t always work out.
“We trained with a dog called Monty,” Lesa tells us. “We took him home and had him for the week but another dog pounced on him when he was training and we just couldn’t get him back into the working mode. Every time we passed another dog he was very ‘dog-distracted’.”
Dogs like Monty who don’t make the grade are often re-trained as ‘companion dogs’ that require a lower level of training but are still badly needed.
Nuala Geraghty from AADI came to take Monty back and happened to have another dog, Skye, with her. Skye was training with another family who had changed their mind about taking a dog and was also on his way back to the charity’s base in Mallow.
“Nuala said she’d never had a situation before where she had to go back to the office with two dogs,” recalls Lesa. “I asked her if we could try Skye and see how she goes. We went out for a walk and Skye passed the test and we got to keep her.
“When I first saw Skye I was a bit intimidated because she’s so tall and I’m not a big person. I thought ‘oh my God, how am I going to manage her’. But I’m glad we did.
Having Skye has made a huge difference to the Gilligans. They can now have family days out to the cinema, go to restaurants and even going to the shops with Luke is no longer the ordeal it once was.
Luke is calmer now and last year started attending a special Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Unit at Scoil Mhuire, in Abbeyleix. And the rest of the family are feeling the benefits too.
“It used to be too much going out with Luke,” says Lesa. “Before, if we were going to a restaurant he could turn chairs and tables over and if there was salt and pepper shakers on the table they’d go flying.
“Now Skye works as a distraction and he’s tethered to her so Luke can’t get away any more.
“When the security at Tesco heard we were getting a dog I think there was a big sigh of relief. They’ve been really great with us and were always helping me chase Luke and track him down when he went running.
“Having Skye educates people and it helps raise awareness of autism as well.
“We still have behavioural problems. He does try to run off but if he does now, Skye’s out the door after him. My chasing days are over!”
The Gilligans’ story is just one of many that Nuala Geraghty of AADI has shared in. The charity was set up five years ago and demand has surged to a point where the waiting list is now six years long.
It costs €15,000 to train each dog and while it’s worth every cent to the families who benefit, it’s not the kind of money that comes easy to a small charity. That’s why AADI was delighted when they received a welcome cash boost from the National Lottery.
“National Lottery funding makes a big difference to us,” says Nuala. “Any funding we get makes a difference in helping us move forward. We want to be able to train more and more dogs every year.
“Funding is a struggle and we’re trying to get to the next stage where we can take on more trainers to be able to provide more dogs, to be able to help more children.
“It was great to see ourselves on Winning Streak too. That sort of awareness really helps as well.”
Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland takes in puppies aged around eight weeks. A team of volunteers care for them for the first year, giving them basic training and preparing them for a canine career as an assistance dog.
“I tell volunteers they do all the hard work,” laughs Nuala. “They have to do all the house training and go through all the sleepless nights.”
The puppies wear an assistance dog jacket that allows them to have access into shops, cinemas and restaurants so they can get ready for the next stage of training.
“They become part of their foster family and go everywhere with them,” Nuala explains. “The more that they see and do at that younger age, the better they will be as an assistance dog.
The puppies continue to learn after basic training and later undergo four or five months intensive preparation before they get introduced to families.
“We don’t have 100 per cent success rate because the standard is so high,” Nuala says. “I would say 50 per cent of the dogs make the grade.
“They’ve got to have the right temperament and they’ve got to be willing and want to do the job.
“It’s fantastic when it does work out and they’re working really well with families and making a difference. That’s really great to see.
“I think the difference it makes is quite personal to each family but it would be things like being able to go out again as a family and everybody’s more relaxed.
“I think they stop relying on the other members of the family as well. A lot of parents say they didn’t realise how much they relied on their other kids to keep an eye on the child with autism.”
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