Darragh & Ulla

Darragh’s mum Stephanie

My beautiful boy Darragh was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I knew I had to be strong. I thought, ‘I’m his mammy. I wouldn’t change a hair on his head, so let’s get on with it’. But I soon found out it’s not easy. Loud noises terrified him. People confused him. I couldn’t put a hairdryer on in the house. I couldn’t even stop and chat to neighbours. I knew how distressing it would be for Darragh. Like many children with autism, he had ‘meltdowns’ when he felt completely overwhelmed. He’d also ‘bolt’. I didn’t know then an Assistance Dog could take those fears away – bringing peace and calm. They really are incredible animals.

I’ll never forget the day I applied for an Assistance Dog for Darragh. Because it was the day I nearly lost my darling boy. I feel panicky just remembering. It’s like I’m back at that shopping centre car park. I got Darragh out of the car, taking care to keep hold of him. And then I dropped my handbag. Of course, I had to pick it up. But as I reached down, I lost hold of Darragh and he was gone. Something had frightened him – someone shouting or the sound of a car engine. And, like many children with autism, his response was to run. But the trouble is, Darragh didn’t understand he was running towards something even more dangerous – a busy road. I did, though. All of this took place in a matter of seconds – maybe a minute – but to me it was like a nightmare. Only I was awake. I ran after him. But I couldn’t catch him. I was terrified the next thing I’d hear was the screech of car brakes as my son ran out into the road. The relief when I saw a woman stopping him – I don’t have the words to describe it. It flooded my whole body. I couldn’t thank her enough, but of course a moment later I was blaming myself. ‘I’m Darragh’s mum and I can’t keep him safe’ – That’s what I was thinking.

The only way to be absolutely sure Darragh wouldn’t bolt and run into a road was to stay at home – all day, every day. And what kind of life was that for him? Like any child, he needed to feel the wind in his hair and the sun on his skin. As Christmas drew closer, I wanted to take him to see Santa and for him to feel the magic of this time of year. There had to be a way. That evening, when I got home, I applied for an Assistance Dog for Darragh. That was our ray of hope.

Darragh got an Assistance Dog at the age of five. To be honest, I was a complete mess the day the call came through – just a week before Christmas – saying he’d been matched with a dog. I burst into tears. Just knowing he was going to have an Assistance Dog was the best Christmas present ever. A short time later, I went down to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind HQ to meet Darragh’s Assistance Dog, Ulla, and undergo training with him. I then carefully drove Ulla home to meet Darragh. I felt like I had the most precious cargo in the car. I didn’t know what would happen when Darragh and Ulla met, but I’d done my best to prepare him. I’d shown Darragh a photo and told him, “This is going to be your dog. He’s a very special dog and he’s being given to us as a gift”. I showed him how to scratch Ulla’s head. He reached out his hand and did the same. That was the start.

I don’t know how many times since then I’ve seen his hand reach out for Ulla and he’s got comfort and reassurance. Ulla has been with Darragh for seven years. When he arrived, he was such a big dog next to my small boy. But now my small boy is big – twelve years old! – and thanks to Ulla he hasn’t only grown taller. He’s calmer. He’s more confident. He’s better able to cope with our noisy, fast-moving world. He goes to school. He’s got friends. He’s part of the community. Every day, through those vital years of growing up, Ulla kept Darragh safe. He loves to stop and tell everyone about his amazing dog. And the first Christmas Ulla was with us she made something magical happen. With Ulla by his side, Darragh was able to go and visit Santa in his grotto and even pose for a photo for the first time ever. For seven years, this incredible dog has kept my son safe.

Since then, Ulla’s seen him through first days back at school, birthdays, holidays, family celebrations, more visits to Santa and, this year, all the changes that came with the pandemic and lockdown.

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