Eight-year-old Sam Kelly, who attends Special National School Foxfield, and two-year-old German shepherd Crystal are best pals since she became part of the Kelly family last Easter. Before Crystal, Sam had to be in a wheelchair or buggy to go out. Now, holding on to the lead, he walks next to her, slowly but steadily.
"To have Crystal as a constant support and comforter at his side has given Sam a huge amount of independence," says his mum Susan. "It is incredible. Not only does he walk now, but the additional exercise has made Sam lose his poor appetite - and for the first time in four years, we were able to go on a proper family holiday this year. Without Crystal none of this would be possible. Crystal gives Sam the reassurance he needs. She is a priceless addition to our family."
The first of its kind in Europe, the Irish Guide Dog Assistance Dog Programme for families of children with autism was piloted in January 2005. Since then, seventy-four families have been trained with an Assistance Dog.
The programme is designed to positively impact on the quality of life of the child with autism and their family. An Assistance Dog offers increased independence, teaches the child responsibility, reduces the stress associated with various social situations and empowers the child to participate better in education, social as well as leisure activities. Assistance dogs are the same breed, age and temperament as guide dogs. Their training is tailored to the child they are paired with, with a focus on protecting and comforting the child. Each dog wears a specially designed harness, which consists of a jacket, a lead for an adult to hold and a belt with a handle which is attached around the child's waist. The dog responds to the commands of the adult, negotiates dangers encountered and provides reassurance to the child.
If you would like to find out more about the programme, please contact: Irish Guide Dogs, National Headquarters & Training Centre, Model Farm Road, Cork, T: 021-4878200, www.guidedogs.ie.