DOZENS of autistic children will not get specialist trained assistance dogs next year because of Government cutbacks. The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDB) said it needs €1.5 million in 2010 to train another 40 assistance dogs for families of children with autism, like it did this year.
The programme has been run from the organisation’s Cork headquarters since 2005, and received €500,000 from the Department of Education and Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 2009. Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe announced yesterday that he is allocating €150,000 to the centre for the programme to help children with autism next year, which IGDB chief executive Pádraig Mallon said will allow them to train three or four dogs under the programme.
"This funding is very welcome and means we can help a small number of families again next year. But the uncertainty of state funding makes it very difficult to plan. "We understand the economic environment for the Government and our intention is to try and ensure a level of additional funding that would allow us plan with more certainty," he said.
The programme provided its 100th dog to the family of an autistic child in Roscommon recently, but about 100 families are on waiting lists for the service, which matches dogs with children usually aged between four and 10. The results have been hugely positive, with parents reporting that the dogs help improve their children’s socialisation and interaction, increases independence and reduces stress for children and their families in public places. However, the training and aftercare programme for the dogs and the families means the cost is high, while the organisation is finding fundraising more difficult during the recession like other charitable groups.
Mr O’Keeffe acknowledged the transformation of families’ lives by the dogs and the work of the IGDB teams. "The assistance dog brings about significant behavioural changes and improved manageability in autistic children who develop a close personal bond with the animal. I hope this funding will go some way towards developing the programme and training more dogs," he said.
Mr Mallon said he hopes the public will think of supporting the IGDB’s work – which also includes training guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired, long cane training and independent living training – if they are taking part in charity swims or other events over Christmas.
The organisation has about 60 staff and about 85% of its €5.2m budget this year came from fundraising.
(This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Wednesday, December 23, 2009)