Best friends are so important.
But my son Tadhg had never had a best friend before Quinta came along. You see, Quinta, his Assistance Dog, really is Tadhg’s closest friend. She came bounding into our lives two years ago and changed everything. And I’m so happy to have the chance to share our story with you today.
The truth is that before Quinta we didn’t have much of a life beyond our own home.
You see, one of the scariest parts of Tadhg’s autism was that the instant you let go of his hand he would bolt. And unlike other children with autism Tadhg loves big crowds. In a flash he would dart away and disappear into the chaos of a crowd.
I remember one occasion in a car park I took my eyes off Tadhg for a split second.
But a second was all it took, I turned around and he was gone. I can’t even begin to describe the fear that came over me but if you’re a parent or grandparent you’ll know what I mean.
I couldn’t breathe but I needed to figure out where he’d gone. I searched everywhere, starting with the most dangerous place first, the main road. Thankfully he wasn’t there. Eventually I found him, up the Main Street, in a sweet shop.
There were more instances, but that one stands out in my mind. The one where for a moment I thought something terrible might have happened.
Bringing Tadhg out became terrifying, so terrifying that eventually we stopped going out as a family. It just didn’t feel safe. You couldn’t relax, even at family gatherings you would have to constantly watch the doors, afraid he’d make a run for it.
And so we learned to do things that didn’t involve leaving the house. Would you believe, I even learned to crochet, because it was something I could do at home?
But it simply wasn’t sustainable, it wasn’t fair to Tadhg and it wasn’t fair on his little brothers. As their mother I felt so guilty about all the things my boys were missing out on.
I had to find a way of helping Tadhg experience the world safely. That’s when I decided to apply to Irish Guide Dogs for an Assistance Dog for Tadhg.
If I’m being completely honest I wasn’t sure we could handle a dog on top of everything that was going on. But I had to try something. We simply couldn’t stay locked in our house forever.
And I didn’t know it then, but filling out that application form would be the best thing I’ve ever done for Tadhg. In fact, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever done for our family.
They have become so inseparable that sometimes I catch Tadhg trying to sneak down to Quinta in the middle of the night.
Let me tell you about the difference Quinta has made in our lives. You may find it hard to believe, but the impact was almost immediate.
The incredible bond that exists between Tadhg and Quinta was forged the very first evening we brought her home. As the day drew to a close Tadhg picked up a blanket, put it over Quinta, lay down beside her on a beanbag and read her a book. That was the start of him opening up.
And since then he’s come on leaps and bounds. I wholeheartedly believe that without Quinta, Tadhg would not have made the progress he has.
You see, Tadhg’s autism meant that when he was just 18 months old he began to regress and he lost virtually all his words. Since then communicating with other people has been a struggle for Tadhg.
But Quinta helped change that. It’s like she turned a switch in Tadhg on. When people talk to Tadhg now he is more engaged and understands more too.
He tells them things about himself and about Quinta. And he loves telling people that Quinta is his best friend. For me as his mum I cannot tell you how much it means to see my little boy finding his voice.
And Quinta looks after Tadhg, she knows when he’s getting stressed and nuzzles in close to him. Her presence has such a calming influence on him and she’s so gentle, she’s like a little fur mother.
Not only does Quinta act as an anchor for Tadhg stopping him bolting when we are out and about. But when she’s beside him, Tadhg’s urge to bolt just seems to disappear.
And it’s not just Tadhg’s life that has changed; Quinta joining the family has had a huge impact on the rest of us too. We’re no longer afraid to leave the house and go do things as a family.
Last Christmas, I brought the boys to see the lights being turned on in Limerick city, before Quinta that would have been unthinkable. The crowds, the noise, the lights, it would have been far too difficult to keep Tadhg safe. But Quinta gives us the confidence we need to do things as a family.
Two years ago just leaving the house was an ordeal. Today life has changed completely; my boys are getting to do the normal everyday things that make a childhood.
I no longer have to feel guilty about all the things they’re missing out on. You see, with Quinta by our side there’s nothing we can’t do. In fact, last Christmas we even went ice-skating and we are planning to do it again this year.
I’m so glad that the countless days and Christmases spent feeling trapped in our home are now a thing of the past.
But right now, I know there’s another family like mine who are afraid to leave the house. They are missing out on all the things that bring a family together and make a childhood special.
I’ve seen first hand the extraordinary impact of your gifts. And I’m so grateful. Every wonderful experience my boys have is thanks to the freedom that having an Assistance Dog brings.
Quinta might be Tadhg’s best friend but she’s also a cherished member of our family.
P.S. The earlier in their life a child gets an Assistance Dog the bigger the impact. With your help Irish Guide Dogs can train more Assistance Dogs for children like Tadhg who are waiting.View all stories