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Autism assistance dogs transform children's lives...but they are expensive to keep

Guide Dog owners have an allowance from Revenue, and now there are calls for that to be extended to Autism assistance dogs also.

Noah with his dog Picasso
Noah with his dog Picasso
Image: Irish Guide Dogs

THE DEMAND FOR autism assistance is huge – so much so that one organisation has a waiting list of five years for them.

While guide dog owners receive an allowance through Revenue for their dog, this isn’t the case for autism assistance dogs.

Assistance Dogs are trained specifically to work with children with autism, acting “as a safety aid and promoting calmness”, as the Irish Guide Dogs – which also works with autism assistance dogs – explained.

These constant companions can have a dramatic impact on the behaviour and quality of life of children.

The issue was raised recently in the Dáil by Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who appealed to both the Ministers for Education and Skills and Finance on the issue.

She pointed out that she had already submitted a parliamentary question to Revenue asking for an allowance for autism assistance dogs, but “the response was that an autism assistance dog was a companion”.

She commented:

I have seen at first hand that these dogs transform the lives of children with autism and their families. Revenue and the Minister for Education and Skills should work together to ensure these families get their due.

Expensive to keep?

Nuala Geraghty, Training Services Manager with Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland, said that the allowance “would be of help” as “it’s expensive to keep the dogs”.

“They are a full working dog,” she pointed out. “The parent couldn’t go out without the dog and take the child into all the different places they take them.”

AADI have companion dogs and assistance dogs. Families apply for a dog and then are assessed at home. “I’d go out to the family home and assess the family as a whole and see what their needs are and where they want to be taking the child,” said Geraghty.

“A dog that would match their needs would be matched to them.” One of the parents would visit the AADI centre to help the train the dog (the dog having been raised from a puppy by volunteers). The dog is then handed over. It’s all about building confidence, said Geraghty.

Waiting list

It’s generally a two-year process, including aftercare. However, currently there is a five-year waiting list for AADI dogs.

On World Autism Day, the Irish Guide Dogs had to close its waiting list for the second time due to a “huge over-demand”.

Geraghty said that autism assistance dogs need to be fed a good quality diet, that sometimes equipment needs to be bought for them throughout the years, and there are also vet and grooming bills.

The dogs are connected to the child by a harness and lead system.

She said that an allowance would benefit the family financially, and would also give recognition to the fact that autism assistance dogs are working dogs.

There has been an “unbelievable” interest in the dogs in recent years, leading to the five year waiting list. The delay is down to funding, as more funding would help the charity to train more volunteers, take on board new dogs and train new staff, explained Geraghty.

How autism assistance dogs help

Irish Guide Dogs asked some of its autism assistance dog owners what the benefits have been for them.

Sheila McNally, who is married to Colm Mac Con Iomaire from The Frames, explained how life for their son Darach has changed since they took in Cassie:

It’s just a year since we got our wonderful Assistance Dog Cassie. Our son suffers from Fragile X Autism (a genetic type) which comes with huge social anxiety to the point where he could take fright and run off if we so much as meet someone on the street. He could run into the road or just disappear on us; we were living on the edge of our nerves. I have often had to abandon his brother in a shop to chase after him.I always knew an Assistance Dog would help him but I had no idea just how much! Cassie is a calming influence on him in every situation, and as a result the whole family can breathe easier. We’re all less stressed! We can look forward to so many previously impossible daily outings, family occasions and holidays because we have her. And because Darach feels safer with her he is more likely to say hi to people we meet… or he can always hide underneath her!

Read: Good news as autism help dog found alive and well>

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