Cash crisis cuts dogs for autistic youngsters
The Irish Guide Dogs association has been forced to close its waiting list for assistance dogs for autistic children.
Hundreds of children with disabilities, particularly those with severe autism, are expected to be affected by the move sparked by a lack of funds.
The average waiting time for an assistance dog has increased to three and a half years.
The association has revealed they can not afford to train more than 40 to 45 dogs a year -- each animal costs €38,000 and 18 months to train.
Operations manager Ken Brydon explained that Irish Guide Dogs had come to the decision last week to avoid disappointing families with the wait.
"At the moment, the total number of assistance dogs we have trained is 167 and we are due to train 41 by the end of the year.
"The waiting list is working out at over a three-year wait and that's the problem," he said.
"Initially, we wanted to cater for children with autism up to the age of nine but it was taking too long to get them a dog and the children were then too old and strong for one.
"We're outside of capacity and we can't train any more than we already are with donations down by 40pc over the past few years. Our Government funding would have been cut as well.
"We are trying to be realistic and not disappoint any more people that apply, we have to be honest that we're restricted with funding, our dog numbers, our staff levels, we can't have an endless list."
Assistance dogs are trained to help autistic children who have a "bolting behaviour", to ensure their safety, while companion dogs are used for therapy and can go to children with a range of disabilities -- including visual impairment, Down Syndrome and slight autism.
Dublin mum Claire Hawkins (26), who was granted an assistance dog for her son AJ just over a year ago, told the Herald that she would not be able to lead a normal life without the help of the animal.
"It's heartbreaking to hear that [Irish Guide Dogs] have had to close their waiting list because I remember what life was like without Gandon.
"I wouldn't want to ever go back to that, so I feel for those families who won't be able to lead a normal life" said the mum, who lives near Dun Laoghaire.
"My son AJ (7) was diagnosed with autism when he was about two and a half years old and when he was four, he went on the waiting list for a dog. We got Gandon last year and life completely changed.
"Before we wouldn't have been able to go out of the house at all but now we just look like every other family.
"AJ is quite a big and strong child, and he would panic at the slightest thing before he got the dog. Gandon comes everywhere with us and if AJ is stressed out or if he's looking for comfort, he will go directly to Gandon."