In 2005, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind began a programme designed to address the needs of children with autism. The Ireland Funds, who had been long-time supporters of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, lent support to the new initiative at its inception. Since then, The Ireland Funds, and the Nantucket and Palm Beach chapters in particular, are pleased to have supported their work with grants of over $100,000. The first of its kind in Europe, the Autism Assistance Programme places specially trained dogs with autistic children and their families. In the five years the program has been in place, 110 dogs have joined families across Ireland. The testimony has been overwhelmingly positive from those who have seen their children’s language skills, socialization and sense of confidence increase thanks to the placement of an autism assistance dog.

Dara Connolly, Adrienne Murphy and their sons Caoimh (7) and Fiach (10) live in Dublin. The other member of the family is Cosmo, a three-year-old german shepherd/golden retriever mix who came to them from Autism Assistance Programme just over one year ago. Their story is remarkable and is an example of the life-changing effect an assistance dog can bring not just to a child with autism, but to an entire family.

Adrienne remembers the isolation. “A year ago we were contending with unbelievably challenging behaviors with Caoimh. His fear and tantrums at age six were so intense that I would have to lie on top of him in public places just to keep him from rushing into traffic. He’d be crying and scratching in frustration and then I’d be crying too. After a while, it just became easier to stay inside. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t leave the house with him for almost four months. It just felt like I was losing my whole life.”

The turning point came when they were introduced to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and their Autism Assistance Programme. “We were on the waiting list to receive a dog for some time,” Dara recalled “I just rang and rang, pleading with them to help us, to just give us some kind of hope. They were so kind and told us to hang in there, even though it might take some time.”

And then the call came. The family was approved and at no cost to them, Dara and Adrienne traveled to Cork for a week of training.The training was tough. Cosmo arrived with an autism specialist/dog trainer who had worked to train and transition the entire family. “Her patience and insight was invaluable,” Dara remembered. “Typically, the child is attached by the waist to the dog, and the parent leads the dog to provide commands. Caoimh has issues with feeling restricted and had such an aversion to being attached to Cosmo by the waist. So Cliona (the trainer) worked with us to come up with another approach where Caoimh instead wears a little rucksack on his back that attaches him to the dog. He wasn’t happy about it at first, but we would walk ten feet from the car to the house with huge praise. Then it was 15 feet, then 20 feet. It took four weeks of perseverance and teaching for him to finally feel comfortable.”

Today, the family has new freedoms thanks to Cosmo’s arrival. Dara reflected on a benefit that is perhaps less apparent. “If you have a blind child then people get out of the way. With Down syndrome people can recognize your child’s special need. But with autism your child looks normal. And so when you go outside and there is a tantrum, people can sometimes be less than understanding. But with this dog, they understand. His presence and jacket tell people there is a special need. I can’t even explain the power of it. You go from being a problem to a welcome guest in a shop. You become a story they can tell about `meeting this great dog that helps a child.’ Caoimh’s abilities and his language skills have improved. Having this dog has changed everything.”




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