Diagnosed with severe autism when he was three, Conor was trapped inside a kind of inner world for the first nine years of his life. He never spoke. He was unable to communicate his feelings or his wants and needs to anyone. And his parents were unable to communicate with him.

As Conor’s mother Gillian explained: “I first realised Conor was not coming on properly when he was about 18 months. He never started talking, he never started doing things that other kids that age would do.  He was just in a world of his own.

“As he got older, he would sit on his own for hours and hours just flicking through a magazine. He was mad about magazines. You could bring a marching band into the house and he wouldn’t flinch.

“He was just not aware of anything that was going on in the world around him. He loves going to school. He loves the routine. But on school holidays his behaviour changes. You can tell when he’s not happy, because he cries and whinges. He doesn’t do that when he’s happy. That’s the only way you know how he’s feeling.”

Before the arrival of Assistance Dog Toby, a normal social life was impossible for the Lynch family because of Conor’s mood swings and behaviour when he was away from the routine of home.

People would stare at Gillian and Ger as though it was their fault. Family gatherings, holidays, even a simple trip to lunch as a family, were impossible.

“Before we got Toby we never used to go anywhere together. Nobody had a good time. It was always me and Conor going one way, and Ger and Jamie going the other.

“I knew he had autism long before he was diagnosed, but it was still devastating when we found out. Really, really heartbreaking,” Gillian said.

Ever since a big white retriever called Toby came into his home and into his life things have begun to change in Conor’s world.

Not all at once, but gradually. As though Toby had found the lost Conor trapped inside, and bit by bit he’s bringing him home.

Conor laughs at things he finds funny now, which began with laughing at Toby. Yet he had never laughed at anything before that.

One recent evening at bedtime Conor beckoned Jamie into his room, put his arms around his brother, and hugged him. It was the first time Conor had ever shown love or affection for another person.

“I couldn’t believe it! Conor had never given anybody a hug before we got Toby,” Gillian said. He also has a school friend. That’s the first time he has ever forged a relationship with another child.

“He’s formed a real bond with a boy in his class called James. The two of them seem to have really taken to each other.”

Since Toby has come into the Lynch home Conor’s behaviour has gradually changed. He’s calmer, more grounded. He ‘focuses’ on Toby, and takes pride in being with ‘his’ dog. There’s a world of difference even in the simple things.

“Conor used to watch telly jumping up and down, screaming, waving his arms in the air like he just didn’t know what to do with himself. But now Toby comes in, lies on the floor, and Conor lies down and put his head on his belly and he watches telly like that,” Gillian said.

Thanks to Toby, Conor is coming out of his shell.

“Toby has changed our lives massively. And not just for Conor. He’s changed things for the whole family. For all of us.”

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