‘Every time we place a dog, it’s like giving new life to each family’
Health hero: Nuala Geraghty set up Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland to provide highly trained dogs to improve the quality of life for children with autism
Nuala Geraghty: “We have had over 1,000 calls in the last four months from families pleading for a dog. We have had to say no as our waiting list is closed. We need the Government to support autism assistance dogs as a vital service to children in crisis.”
Living in Blarney, Co Cork, her role involves completing assessments of children on the charity’s waiting list, managing the business transactions, training the dogs, supervising trainers and ensuring all dogs are trained to Assistance Dogs Europe standards. She also manages compliance, adhering to all of the Charities Regulator recommendations, SORPS and, of course, fundraising to get the dogs to their forever homes.
AADI receives no Government funding and it costs €15,000 to train and place an assistance dog with a child who really needs their support. Due to the high demand for these animals, she has had to close the charity waiting list and is currently moving towards working in partnership with corporations to help support the thousands of children who are currently in need of an assistance dog.
We spoke to this Health Hero to find out what makes her proud, what needs to be changed in order to improve lives in Ireland and what she does to unwind.
1) What is your proudest achievement?
Every time I tell a family that we have an assistance dog for their child is my proudest moment. I know that by giving this autism assistance dog, brothers and sisters will also get to do normal things again with their mum and dad. Families ring us every week to say: ‘Guess what? We all went out for our first ice cream today’ or ‘I got to see my other daughters play today. I never could do that before we got the assistance dog’. The animals get families back into to the community as their child with autism feels safe with the dog and calmer so outings are now easier. Every time we place a dog, it’s like giving new life to each family – but this couldn’t be possible without our amazing donors and supporters.
2) What motivates you in your work and life?
I have been training dogs to support people with disabilities for over 20 years, but hearing families with a child with autism talk of their daily struggles, discrimination, judgement and isolation pushed me to set up AADI. These highly trained assistance dogs will make lives easier, will bring families together again and help society understand that the child has a disability. That is the driving force of this charity – to give freedom back to families with autism.
3) What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?
I go to the gym and eat a balanced diet. I work long hours and often at the weekends so good quality sleep is a plus. But really, a healthy mind makes for a healthy body. My strong family ties and great friends are so important. And, of course, there is no feeling on earth like running along the beach with the dogs in training, watching the joy they take from life and knowing that they will bring immense happiness to families who are currently struggling and living in isolation.
4) What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society
To include everyone in our communities – to remember those families with autism (and other disabilities) who are living in isolation and work to bring them back. We all need to feel that we belong, that we matter and that our strengths can contribute to a better society. Many children with autism live healthy, full and happy lives. But our charity is here because there are children and families that are living a daily nightmare and need us to help them to live again. When families are left in isolation, mental health and relationships suffer. Not because they are not trying their best, but because they are not getting what they need to get back to their communities.
5) What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?
We urgently need to get more autism assistance dogs to these families. We have had over 1,000 calls in the last four months from families pleading for a dog. We have had to say no as our waiting list is closed. We need the Government to support autism assistance dogs as a vital service to children in crisis. The proof of its success is in the families that are back out in our society living and being part of Ireland again. Proof is in the children with autism, who because of the assistance dog, are able to focus, to learn, to concentrate and to be finally free from the crippling anxiety that had hindered their growth for so long. The assistance dogs help make this happen.
6) What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?
One in 65 children in Ireland have autism and yet we are failing them on so many levels. We have children spending their lives on waiting lists for speech and language, occupational therapy, psychology – waiting, waiting and waiting. Early intervention is critical to a child’s well-being. Research from the Universities of Cambridge and Coventry in the UK found that among those who have died by suicide, approximately 12 per cent had definite or probable autism. We are just not getting enough support to children with autism and definitely not at an early enough age.
7) How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?
Minister Harris has done a lot over the years to support children with autism but so much more has to be done. Parents tell us regularly that their child has experienced frequent bullying, causing untold stress and anxiety. But they have been told to physically discipline their child or that their child shouldn’t be allowed out in public. The Minister for Health needs to really drive a campaign to educate our society about what autism truly is. How can people support it if they don’t understand? Discrimination of people with autism in this country is wreaking havoc on their mental and physical health and it needs to be addressed today.
8) What do you do to relax and unwind?
In an era of screens and excess in every aspect of our lives, I love nothing more than a good book and an even better plot.
9) What makes you laugh?
Peter Kay, the comedian. I don’t know why but he cracks me up. And, of course, the assistance dogs in training. Massive personalities and even more devilment mean there is never a dull moment with them.
10) Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?
It sounds cliched, but even with the rain, this country is fabulous. I love the people, the energy and the humour. But if I definitely love the sea – to wake up to the smell of the sea breeze, feel it in on my face and then be brought back to reality with a bark as a collection of wonderful assistance dogs in training bound madly around me to get out for a walk in the wild Atlantic air.
- Do you know a Health Hero? Every week, we will honour one of the people deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate someone, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes
Our Health Heroes
1 - Martin Nevin: Even unwashed and medicated up to my eyes, Martin makes me feel beautiful
2 - Maureen Durcan: That so many live on the poverty line in Ireland is incredibly sad
3 - John Burke: Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain
4 - Derek Devoy: The Kilkenny taxi man whose drive saves lives
5 - Sarah Fitzgibbon: Society has to stop treating the marginalised and disabled as charity cases
6 - Kathleen King: I wanted to make sure no one else would have to wait nine years for a diagnosis
7 - Caoimhe Bennett: The schoolgirl raising understanding about young carers
8 - Ann Norton: Our hospitals are a disgrace. We are letting down our doctors, nurses and whole society
9 - Una McNicholas: My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister
10 - Catherine Cox: Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role they did not ask for
11 - Prof Rose Anne Kenny: Good friendships make for a healthy life as much as regular exercise and healthy diet
12 - Dr Robert O’Connor: Within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine and screening
13 - Claire Cahill and Michelle Long: Scoliosis campaigners battling to reduce waiting times for children
14 - Prof Donal O’Shea: The shocking fact is that most ill-health now comes from our lifestyle
15 - Nuala Geraghty: Every time we place a dog, it’s like giving new life to each family