I’m writing this, because I’m a mum. If you’re a parent yourself, you’ll know how tough it is, but you figure that if you love your children and take good care of them, you’re doing your job.
But what if you can’t? What if you can’t do the most basic thing a parent should do? What if you can’t keep your child – who you love more than life itself – safe? I can tell you – you feel absolutely desperate. My five and a half year old son Charlie is a sweet, gentle boy, but life is hard for him.
Two years ago, he was diagnosed with autism. He can’t speak. He also has a learning disability. And he has no concept of danger. He’ll climb out of windows. He’ll ‘bolt’ and he has no fear of traffic. Once he ran out into the road. A car came round the corner straight at him. I was screaming ‘Charlie’ but he didn’t move. I’m forever grateful that the driver saw him and stopped.
For Charlie, things we understand without effort – like danger – are confusing and overwhelming. And that means he has ‘meltdowns’. He screams. He’s inconsolable and he lies on the floor. To an outsider, it might look like the worst tantrum on earth, but it’s not – it’s the only way he can express how he’s feeling.
While we struggle to understand how children like Charlie see the world, Assistance Dogs seem to know exactly how to connect with them. As I’ve seen, an Assistance Dog is a complete life changer for a child like Charlie.
The families currently on the waiting list are desperately hoping they’ll soon get an Assistance Dog, but when? For families like mine, every day on that waiting list is a kind of agony. You’re glad, of course, because it’s giving you hope. But you’re thinking all the time – when is it going to happen? When are we going to get an Assistance Dog?
In the meantime, you’re getting more isolated by the day. You can’t leave the house as a family for fear of your child getting hurt, lost or worse. That’s how it was for us. When we heard the waiting list for an Assistance Dog was opening, we grabbed our chance and applied. Then we waited and hoped.
As the weeks and months passed, our lives were getting harder and harder. I was trying to care for Charlie and his baby brother, Alfie, and I was pulled in every direction. I was exhausted. We were struggling. I remember, one time, we were in the supermarket and I needed to get Charlie out of the buggy for a minute. I turned around for a few seconds and he was gone.
Panic. Blind panic. That’s the only way I can describe how I felt because this is what I’d always feared. I knew that Charlie couldn’t ask for help or tell anyone what was happening.
It was probably only a minute or two before a woman brought him back to me, but it seemed like a lifetime. After that, we hardly ever went out. And when we did, Charlie was strapped in his buggy the whole time because I wanted to keep him safe.
But Charlie was getting bigger. Keeping him strapped into his buggy meant he had low muscle tone in his legs. He wasn’t going out enough and he wasn’t walking. I couldn’t win. And that really hurt because I wanted to do my best for my little boy and my whole family.
Having Assistance Dog Iona has opened up the world for Charlie. We couldn’t do simple things like go shopping. We definitely couldn’t do anything like going to birthday parties or play dates or even a family gathering. I really don’t want anyone else to go through it – especially when an Assistance Dog can change everything.
You could help one of these amazing dogs complete their training and start working with a child with autism. I remember how low I felt. Then the call came through saying there was an Assistance Dog for Charlie. I bawled. I cried my eyes out. I was just so happy. So relieved. I knew, at last, something was going to change. I’ll never forget the day we went to meet Iona.
For Charlie, it was love at first sight. We went for a little walk together and Charlie just didn’t want to leave her. A short time later, she came to live with us and Charlie just dissolved on the floor with her. Within half an hour, they were lying on the floor together. Charlie was completely calm – just cuddling her.
The change in Charlie wasn’t gradual. It was instant. Before, when Charlie got anxious, his arms would start flapping and then he’d have a meltdown. But not with Iona. He’d just reach for her – she’d work her magic – and everything would be okay.
At night, he’d cry out because he was having nightmares, but instead of coming to me, he’d go to Iona. I’d find him in her bed and she’d be sleeping on the floor next to him. They had an amazing bond straightaway. It’s your kind, generous gifts that makes this kind of transformation possible. And your help is needed now to get more dogs through their training, so that children like Charlie get their own Iona.
Like I said, if we ever went out, Charlie was strapped in his buggy all the time before Iona arrived. But that changed. I remember a few months after we got her we went with some friends to the forest. I wanted to see how Charlie would get on with walking.
I couldn’t believe it. Charlie and Iona just skipped along together, completely content and, most importantly, safe.
It wasn’t long ago that Charlie’s legs were weak and he could never have walked like that. And then there was Mother’s day. Before Iona, we wouldn’t even have tried to go out for a meal together. It would be too much for Charlie and he’d have a meltdown. But this year, we had dinner out – the whole family. Me, my husband, Charlie, Alfie and Iona.
Any time Charlie was stressed, he just lay with Iona on the floor until he felt better. It was amazing.
Iona’s now been with us six months and I feel so much more positive about the future. We can go out together – confident that Charlie is safe. Iona is harnessed to him and walks with him, keeping him away from the traffic. Iona is doing life-saving work and I think Charlie knows it because, every few minutes, you’ll see his little hand go out and touch her for reassurance.