FOR many families with a loved one on the autism spectrum, fear is a daily companion as some people with autism frequently have no sense of physical danger.
That means that children can wander off or simply walk out in front of traffic. This is just one of the reasons autism assistance dogs can change the lives of entire families for the better.
“Protection is their first mission,” Jacob Harmon, head of fundraising with Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (AADI), told the Limerick Post.
“When a family adopts an assistance dog, it creates a whole new range of possibilities. With the element of danger removed, they are much freer to go out, go on holiday, and communicate with the community.
“A lot of people don’t know what to say when they meet someone with autism and the dog is a great conversation opener.”
The dogs also provide vital emotional support and help children to master their volatile emotions and sensory challenges.
“Children who are non-verbal but on the cusp of being able to speak often become verbal once they have a dog,” explained Jacob.
AADI are a charity and part of an international breeding programme which produces puppies of the right temperament to be trained as assistance dogs.
And a Limerick family plays an important role in that process for the AADI, as they care for mother dogs and their newborn puppies as they prepare to undertake training.
Lynn and Michael Christianson from Caherconlish are responsible for the playful pups in the first weeks of their lives.
“We currently have 315 volunteers who foster puppies and begin their training, teaching them various commands and socialising them,” Jacob says.
“When the dogs are about 18 months old they go on for specialist training with qualified instructors before being matched with a family.”
The charity placed 19 dogs with families in the past year, and hopes to place 35 next year. However, Jacob says, there are currently 400 families on the waiting list for dogs, so there is still a ways to go.
A puppy takes two years to train and by the time it is turned over to a family, it has cost €25,000. Each dog works for eight years and is then retired as the family pet.
The AADI needs €1.5 million this year to breed, feed, foster, and train dogs, all of which has to be fundraised as the group receives no central funding.
“We would love to see everyone who needs a dog getting one but for now, we just have to try to place dogs with the people who will benefit most from them,” said Jacob.
Donations can be made here