When Darragh was two years of age, his parents became concerned he may have some developmental issues. He did not interact with the environment like other children his age. For instance, Darragh was fascinated with rubbing his face and closed his eyes against the handles on the kitchen cabinets. He also repeatedly rocked back and forth when he was sitting up in his cot.

Darragh & Assistance Dog Ulla

Darragh’s dad is a nurse and witnessed similar behaviour with children with disabilities that he worked with. Darragh’s parents made an appointment to see the public health nurse. She assessed Darragh and said there was nothing to be concerned about.

However, Darragh’s parents pursued the matter and sought a formal assessment. A resource worker visited the family at their home. The resource worker broke down when she told Stephanie and her husband her diagnosis. She wept and told them Darragh most certainly had autism. She was weeping because she felt this was a burden for the young couple.

However, Stephanie took a pragmatic approach. “I was not upset when I heard the diagnosis. I simply thought what can we do to help Darragh.” They were given the formal diagnosis a month after the resource worker’s visit. Darragh was two and a half at the time and given a place soon after in an early intervention unit. At this unit Stephanie learned about visual scheduling and how to help Darragh when he is having a meltdown. Darragh would get frustrated easily. For instance, if he spilled his drink this would lead to a meltdown. Nothing would calm him down and the situation would escalate. His meltdown could last for hours.

Stephanie, Darragh and Assistance Dog Ulla

Stephanie also secured a home tutor for Darragh. The home tutor significantly helped Darragh with verbal communication and other developmental issues. However, despite the progress Darragh was making, his bolting behaviour continued. Stephanie recalls one occasion when she had a lot on her mind as she had recently separated from her partner. She was putting the weekly supermarket shopping in to the car. Before she knew what was happening, Darragh bolted across the car park. She ran after him but she could not catch up to him. A by-stander caught up with Darragh and brought him back to Stephanie.

Stephanie decided to applied for an Assistance Dog. She welcomed Ulla in to her home as Darragh’s Assistance Dog. Since getting Ulla, Darragh has stopped bolting. He has even become more conscious of road safety. Through Ulla he has learned to stop at road crossings. Even now, if Stephanie tries to cross the road with out stopping, Darragh tells her she must wait for Ulla, who is specially trained to stop at crossings.

Assistance Dog Ulla and Darragh outside St. Johns Castle

Ulla also helps Darragh in social situations which cause him anxiety. “Ulla is a positive focal point in Darragh’s life and he loves chatting to people about him.” Even Stephanie’s mother who is terrified of dogs loves looking after Ulla and Darragh when Stephanie is working.

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