A project working with families with children with autism and physical disabilities across Northern Ireland including in the Causeway Coast area is sharing in funding worth almost £3.5 million from the Big Lottery Fund’s Supporting Families programme.
Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland received £697,825 for the five-year Supporting Children, Supporting Families project. It is training, placing and supporting 75 assistance dogs with families who have a child aged 11 and under with autism or physical disabilities. It is one of five projects awarded funding totalling £3,468,110 million on July 31st (see separate attachment for full list of awards)
The group is working with Disability Action, Autism NI and Autism Advisory and Intervention Service to support families across Northern Ireland.
The dogs encourage independence, confidence and well being by carrying out everyday tasks including picking up items and opening and closing doors, and guide and anchor children with autism who may be at risk of ‘bolting’ on busy streets. The project also includes group trips and events, a support helpline and activities including training sessions and basic animal first aid.
The Barker family from Cullybackey, Co Antrim have had their lives transformed by a dog from Assistance Dogs NI. When Rebecca (8) was diagnosed with Asperger’s – a form of autism – her parents didn’t know where to turn.
“We didn’t know anything was ‘wrong’ until Rebecca went to school – there always seemed to be a reasonable explanation for any of the things we might have wondered at about,” said Michelle Barker, a full-time mum.
“But it became clear that Rebecca was desperately different from the rest of the kids. That was in September 2011, and by December she was diagnosed.”
Rebecca’s condition means that she has a number of sensory issues and can find many everyday situations overwhelming.
“Rebecca is constantly trying to make sense of a world where nothing seems to make sense and so she becomes extremely anxious,” said Michelle.
But after Michelle and husband Adam got in touch with Assistance Dogs NI, things began to change for the family. Eighteen months ago the group placed trained golden retriever Honey with them. Now Rebecca and Honey are so close that they’re known as the ‘Barker Girls’ in their local area. They are well known in the Portstewart area as well, where they have a holiday caravan.
Michelle said: “Rebecca calls Honey her fluffy sister. There is an incredible bond between them. Everywhere Rebecca goes, Honey goes. She is just part of the family.
“If Honey hears Rebecca crying she will go to her and lick her to calm her down. That is sorted out in a few minutes whereas before Rebecca had meltdowns that could have gone on for 15 minutes, an hour or even a week.
“Honey also encourages Rebecca to be more social and make friends. She was out crab fishing on the north coast the other day with her dad and a few kids came up to see Honey. She was able to talk away and tell them all about Honey – then the next thing was she was knocking about with these kids.
“It’s hard to put into words how they connect with each other – it’s like a sixth sense – but once Honey puts on her purple Assistance Dog jacket she works so hard. She’s always scanning for anything that might be dangerous or frightening.
She added: “Honey is the best anxiety buster you’ll ever get. I couldn’t begin to tell you how she has changed our lives.”
Michelle is delighted that thanks to this new funding from the Big Lottery Fund, more families with children with autism or physical disabilities will benefit from support from Assistance Dogs NI.
“The support we’ve got from Assistance Dogs has been amazing. I know that if I have an issue with Honey I can phone them any time,” she said.
For Patricia Whyte, vice-chair of Assistance Dogs NI, Rebecca and Honey’s story sums up what their work is about.
“These dogs are benefitting families in so many different ways. They are allowing them to live and be part of their community. They are a therapy for the whole family and are just transforming people’s lives,” she said.
Joanne McDowell, Big Lottery Fund NI Director, said: “We are delighted to be funding these five new projects through our Supporting Families programme. They will all strengthen families’ ability to cope with the challenges they face. We hope they will have a really positive impact on the lives of people who need our help the most.”