This is a feature article I did in 2012 as part of a ‘TY News’ Competition. I interviewed a mother, who also happens to be my aunt, of a young bog who has autism. The family now have an assistance dog that helps her son Cian in many ways, this interview explores the concept of what the dog does to help the boy and his family in everyday life. I received an award from the competition directors, The Wicklow People, as part of the ‘People Papers’ group that are a regional paper from the Independent Newspaper groups. This article was categorised as ‘Highly Commended’.
http://www.independent.ie/regionals/wicklowpeople/lifestyle/boys-best-friend-27869728.html (although here it is credited to the wrong person, which I was told numerous times would be corrected, it still remains. An apology was printed in the paper at the time following this error).
Here is the published article.
“Boy’s Best Friend” How ‘Edwen’, the assistance dog, has changed Cian’s life.
THE NATIONAL charity of The Irish Guide Dogs was launched in 1976 with the aim to help blind and visually impaired persons achieve an improved quality of life with increased independence.
In 2005, the organisation started the Assistance Dogs programme for families of children with Autism. The idea originally began in Canada but this was the first of its kind in Europe.
Autism is a development disorder that effects brain development in the areas of social interaction, such as difficulties with communication, language and expression. Autistic children can find public places and situations difficult and can suffer high levels of anxiety.
Assistance dogs help control and improve behaviour of the child by promoting calmness and acting as a safety mechanism for parents in regards to making outings to public areas less stressful and in turn they can enjoy greater freedom, independence and mobility. The assistance dog also enhances the child’s social skills and interaction with family and peers, with a greater aptitude towards learning. Improved social participation and communication which also introduces a sense of responsibility with results in improved confidence and independence in the child.
I interviewed a grateful mother, Ann-marie Kelly who received an assistance dog Edwen to her family for her son Cian who has autism. She told me about her experiences with the assistance dog, and how having him has improved life for her son and the entire family. She sat me down to talk in her now cosy, calm and relaxed home environment, with Edwen the kind controlled assistance dog, and her happy seven year old son Cian, who has progressed and improved tremendously since diagnosed with Autism at the age of three. Cian has improved even more since the arrival of Edwen the Assistance Dog in late 2010.
I began by asking Ann-marie, how she first became involved with The Irish Guide Dogs? She told me when Cian was first diagnosed with Autism she began to search for information on the issue, and came across the Assistance Dogs Programme on the internet.
She was interested in the idea and decided to further her knowledge and got in contact with The Irish Guide Dogs, who were very helpful and she received applicant papers for an assistance dog. She believed the dog could really benefit her son and their family. At this stage Cian had gotten away from them being out times before, it was beginning to get difficult going out to public places, and this was causing Cian a lot of stress. She felt the dog would act as a safety guard for Cian, and also having a pet he could form a positive bond with, improving Cian socially in regards to relationships.
The biggest improvement was the new reality of less stress in bringing Cian out anywhere. Cian did not co-operate before, he wouldn’t hold your hand out walking, and he tried to escape a few times which made us result in carrying him or putting him in a buggy, which even then he always remained stressed. It is easier now because Cian wears a belt, attached with a theader to Edwen, and having Edwen as his friend to help beside him calms Cian a lot.
This decreases our stress too, and it has made our lives easier and more manageable. We can see that Cian has formed a bond with Edwen, as he cares, loves and shows affection to his assistance dog.
Before, Cian sometimes could not handle getting to school in the mornings, and he became upset every morning coming into school, but since Edwen has been with him he has not cried since, which is a huge improvement.
Cian has accepted Edwen as his guide and his helpful friend, he often tells other children about his assistance dog, he says ‘ They should get one too,’ Ann-marie laughs.
Cian can have some difficulties in social situations but he has improved greatly in his abilities to go out to new or strange places. It has become easier to visit family relatives and friends with Cian and his assistance dog. Edwen is leading Cian to a brighter future, to a stage where he can become independent, and that is what we want for all children with Autism.
I then enquired; Do you think the economic downturn has affected the Assistance Dogs programme? The programme has now had to close for the time being due to a decrease in funds, they cannot take any more applicants. But there is still a great deal of public support, which leads to 85% of all funds in The Irish Guide Dogs charity. The national charity is funded 15% by statutory government bodies, which sadly has to decrease every year due to the economic downturn.
The organisation will keep working through fund-raising events, which is always open to the public and would be greatly appreciated.
The public can always support the programme through collections for the charity. ‘ Shades Week’ beginning in early May, which involves receiving a Irish Guide Dogs pin for making a donation of any kind.
Roy Keane is heavily involved with the cause, and all information on this topic can be found on The Irish Guide Dogs Website http://www.guidedogs.ie , which provides links to the Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/irishguidedogs), Twitter (@irishguidedogs), or send them an e-mail at the address firstname.lastname@example.org, even phone them on 1850-506-300.
Volunteers can help with bag-packs, collections or even get involved at their local branches. For more information contact The Irish Guide Dogs, they would be delighted with as much help as possible and happy to talk to anyone about this. Ann-marie told me recently she has been involved with raising awareness about Autism and The Irish Guide Dogs by visiting schools as a representative with a guide dog. Schools can hold a non-uniform day, bake sales or any form of fund-raising event with help from The Irish Guide Dogs.
As Edwen made himself comfortable, I began to ask Ann-marie; How she found the training when she was first introduced to Edwen? She found the idea slightly daunting, thinking about a beautiful animal given to her family and she had fears about her own abilities in regards Edwen understanding her, and how she would interact with him and how she’d handle him.
The trainers at the centre in Cork were excellent and understanding with any questions she had, no matter how small and they have been always supportive to clients all the way through. She told me the programme has been a complete success, and it has gone beyond their own expectations at The Irish Guide Dogs, and it has turned out better than originally thought. Edwen was twenty months old, and he had been accepted after his high standard of training, when he was introduced to Ann-marie and the family. Both Guide and Assistance dogs are trained in the same process. A dog is chosen for a specific family, in regards to its temperament and ability.
Ann-marie explained to me about Edwen and Cian on a day to day basis. Edwen brings Cian to school, settles him in his class, and goes with Cian home from school. Edwen goes to the shop, doctor, dentist or hair dressers’ with Cian, and calms him in these situations that previously caused Cian a lot of stress and anxiety.
Edwen has access to all areas and really helps Cian remain calm in the stressful atmosphere. Cian trusts Edwen one hundred percent and one day Edwen nudged Cian, and Cian said ‘Look Mommy, I think he loves me,’ which Ann-marie was overwhelmed with. Cian now describes Edwen as his best friend, who protects him and the family are delighted.
Edwen is a professionally trained working dog. He goes out walking with Cian with his jacket on and he is fully focused on Cian, but when he is at home, without his working jacket Edwen is a normal happy family pet. Cian has expressed his feelings towards Edwen, before he used to see other peoples’ purpose was to aid him, to get him objects or anything he needed, but certainly his assistance dog has thought him more about caring relationships and Cian has learned and progressed a lot from having Edwen.
Cian has been doing better in school, he attends an autism unit attached to a mainstream school, he is a lot calmer and relaxed in school and so is getting better at concentrating on his school work. Having an assistance dog has been a positive experience on the entire family, and Ann-marie tells me she is in full support of The Irish Guide Dogs organisation, and the difference they have made for her son Cian and the family.