My name is Karen, a mum with a little girl who has autism. Ever since our Assistance Dog joined our family, amazing things have happened.
So I’ve wanted to do something special to say thank you to Irish Guide Dogs for the incredible difference Yolo has made to Skye.
And now I have that chance by writing this piece.
But I should put the brakes on for a moment because you may not know much about autism, or Assistance Dogs for that matter.
So please let me tell you a little bit more – firstly about Skye. She’s my little angel, but she lives in a world that’s just a little bit different to yours and mine.
It’s kind of like, you and I understand our world, and Skye understands hers. But we can’t understand hers, and she can’t understand ours even though they overlap.
Of course, that’s not really a problem for you and me. Because the world is full of people just like us.
But it is a problem for Skye. Because she’s all alone. Before Yolo came along, Skye would never speak with anyone.
In fact, she never spoke a word until she was three. She was afraid of going anywhere that wasn’t familiar or that had loud noises or lights.
If we were out shopping and somebody spoke to her, or made eye contact with her, she would fall apart. And, like most children with autism, she would bolt the instant you let go of her hand.
“Bolting” is a medically recognised behaviour among children with autism. For mums like me, it’s a matter of life and death!
I suppose she felt trapped, and overwhelmed. But she couldn’t tell me what she was feeling, because she didn’t have a way to explain her fears, her feelings, or her needs to me.
Like, if she wanted to go swimming, she couldn’t say, “Mam, can we go swimming?” like other children would.
She’d just find her togs and head for the pool. This actually happened!
She was out the front door and across the very, very busy road we live on before we even knew what was happening.
She didn’t know where the pool was. She had no idea how to get there. But she was going anyway. Running!
I’ve never been so frightened in my life. But that’s what daily life was like – constantly terrified for your child’s safety.
Constantly stressed. And constantly confronted by people who look at you like you’re the worst parent in the world because your child is having a meltdown.
A “meltdown” is not a tantrum. An adult on the autism spectrum once described the feeling of a meltdown as “like the world is ending and a massive darkness has smothered you.” It’s heartbreaking to think of your own child going through that!
“Another dysfunctional family day out,” as my older daughter Megan used to joke. But the truth is, we stopped going anywhere as a family.
Everything changed for us when Yolo came along. Literally every aspect of our lives has changed for the better.
You see, an Assistance Dog HAS to start working with a child like Skye as early as 4 years old. After the age of seven, it’s simply too late!
I can’t imagine life without Yolo. He’s so, so important to Skye’s development. And to us all as a functioning family.
These amazing dogs are provided free of charge to families, and with no government support for the Assistance Dog Programme, every cent of that has to come from big-hearted donors like you.
If I could sum up in one word the reason we desperately wanted an Assistance Dog, and the single biggest thing Yolo does for Skye, it’s this one – safety.
And Yolo delivered on that immediately by putting a flat stop to the bolting. Whenever we set foot outside the house now, Skye and Yolo are physically attached by a strap that’s clipped on to Yolo’s harness and to a belt that Skye wears.
So even if she wanted to bolt, she couldn’t. But the real miracle is that she just doesn’t want to bolt anymore!
For us, the next really big thing was the effect Yolo had on us all as a family. As I mentioned, we’d reached the stage where we just couldn’t really do anything as a family anymore, because the meltdowns had us all oozing stress.
We either split the children up, one of us with Skye, and the other with Megan and the baby, or we stayed at home.
But with Yolo, that changed on day one. Well, to be fair, it was day two! My husband Darren was in work, but I was determined for the rest of us to get going with Yolo, so when Megan came home from school I said, “Right. That’s it. We’re going to McDonald’s for our dinner.” Megan literally didn’t understand what I meant.
But off we went, myself and Megan, my son Darren Junior – who was 18 months at the time – in the buggy, and Skye attached to Yolo.
Megan was saying, “I can’t believe we’re just walking down the road all together. This never happens.” Then Darren rang me on my mobile and of course he couldn’t believe it either. “What do you mean? All of you?” He said. “Come on now, that’s a bit much!”
“No,” said I. “It’s not a bit much. It’s what Yolo is for.” Skye was fine. No meltdown. No stress. The staff at McDonald’s saw the jacket on Yolo and never said a word. We ordered our food and sat there eating it like any other family. It was the most normal meal we’d ever had!
So yes, right from day one Yolo calmed Skye. He grounded her. Gave her something wonderful to focus on that was all hers. And I guess the rest of the world she lives in didn’t seem so scary anymore. And that was just the beginning.
These days Skye doesn’t have a problem with strangers, or with eye contact. Her communication has improved beyond anything we could have imagined. And I know it’s all down to Yolo – day by day he’s unlocking the world for her. And on top of all that, he’s brought us all together as a family too. What an amazing dog!