When Caoimh Connolly stopped hugging, it was the first sign that he was autistic, says Joy Orpen. But revolutionary therapy from the Saplings School in Rathfarnham, and a remarkable dog, have turned his life around.
Sunday April 25 2010
An adorable dog with a diligent but sensitive nature has helped a little boy find the courage to move from a place of confused isolation into one of brightness and hope.
Caoimh Connolly, six, who suffers from autism, had become so impossible to handle that his distraught parents had stopped taking him anywhere. It was traumatic for Caoimh, and exhausting for his parents to deal with Caoimh's extreme tantrums.
Yet, today, that same little boy looks forward to his outings, while his parents are relieved to be leading a relatively normal life again.
According to Autism Support Ireland, and Irish Autism Action, autism is "characterised by severe problems in communication and behaviour and an inability to relate to people in a normal manner".
On meeting Caoimh in Rialto, Dublin 8, I can see that he has some of those traits. The little boy is constantly on the move, spinning, twirling, jumping and shouting. But he has made great progress too. His mother, Adrienne Murphy, draws him to her and talks to him with a loving, patient voice. The boy glances at her briefly before resuming his jumping, galloping and shouting.
Though his father, Dara Connolly, and Adrienne no longer live together, the wellbeing of Caoimh and his older brother, Fiach, nine, is their absolute priority. And so Dara and Adrienne are hugely busy fundraising for Caoimh's school and lobbying the Government for a more humane deal for children with autism. All this is on top of their jobs heading up finance and business development at the Temple Bar Cultural Trust, and journalism, respectively.
This frenetic road was certainly not one they had anticipated when their second son was born. "Caoimh means gentle in Irish, and we thought we had the best-named child in the world," says Dara.
But then things started to change, and Fiach, then five, was first to notice. "He told us that Caoimh didn't hug him anymore," says Adrienne, "and he noticed that his younger brother wasn't making eye contact."
Then the toddler "lost" the few words he knew, while his innate gentleness gave way to frustration and anger. "He used to tear pages from books, bite people and scribble manically on the walls," recalls Adrienne. "When a child regresses like this into autism, it is hugely distressing for the parents. It's like losing the child." Four years ago, an assessment revealed that Caoimh was autistic. The cause is unknown.
Lisa, who is a parent at Saplings Rathfarnham, the school where Caoimh is now enrolled, describes the condition on the school's website: "Autism is a sensory disability in which everything your child sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells is distorted."
She likens it to being in a foreign city where you don't speak the language and everyone is too busy to help you. The sights, sounds, and bustle become horrendously unmanageable.
It's a frightening scenario, yet Caoimh's parents discovered there was almost no help available for their son.
However, they felt that a certain system, applied behaviour analysis (ABA), offered Caoimh his best shot at a normal life.
In simple terms, ABA is a system of analysing behaviour and then modifying it by offering incentives for change.
The goal of ABA is to help the child find a link between their unique, very complex autistic world and ours. It's a very intense form of long-term, one-on-one therapy.
There are many other complex issues involved: the non-talking child may need to learn sign language, or to communicate using pictures; they may have phobias about clothes, food, sounds and smells, which are caused by their over-sensitive sensory perceptions.
They may have emotional difficulties and severe behavioural problems. So ABA has to address all of these.
The rewards ABA brings, according to some experts, far outweigh the effort and expense involved. A good percentage of children with autism who are exposed to full-time ABA become part of mainstream education and go on to lead productive lives.
Adrienne and Dara decided this was Caoimh's only hope. Eventually they were offered a place at Saplings, Rathfarnham, a small school that uses the ABA method. "We are so lucky to be among the small percentage in Ireland who will get a place at an ABA school," says Dara.
Already he and Adrienne can see phenomenal changes in Caoimh. He is trying to speak, he is learning to integrate in a normal environment, and, best of all, he is not terrified of the world around him all the time .
Like many of the other parents, Dara and Adrienne constantly have to raise funds to keep Caoimh's school going, since it is only partly funded by government, but it's a small price to pay for the positive returns they get.
Another godsend in Caoimh's difficult life is a German shepherd-golden retriever cross called Cosmo. He is the result of an initiative by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDB) to train dogs to assist young children with autism.
Adrienne and Dara spent a week at IGDB headquarters in Cork learning how to handle the dog.
Dara says the staff were "unbelievably helpful and supportive"; and, in addition, they didn't charge them for their stay or for Cosmo.
When they brought the dog home, Caoimh would have nothing to do with him, but several months later he began tentatively touching the dog and then playing with him.
Today, Cosmo watches over Caoimh like a hawk, while the little boy has shown great courage in placing his trust in the dog.
When Cosmo is working, he wears a special jacket that has two leads: one for the adult in charge, while the other connects to a rucksack worn by Caoimh. The dog is so well trained there is no possibility of the little boy wandering off or running into traffic.
"Caoimh's anxiety is much less now he knows he is physically safe with Cosmo," says Adrienne. "The dog is also a calming presence. When Caoimh is stressed he strokes Cosmo's ear and this reduces his anxiety. This has also helped him to learn to regulate his own adrenaline levels caused by stress."
Adrienne says this is in stark contrast to the anxiety Caoimh used to pick up from her. "Cosmo doesn't care if people stare and he's not always in a state of acute anxiety in case something goes wrong," she explains. "It's thanks to Cosmo that Caoimh now has access to the outside world. I can't tell you what that means to us all; our lives are transformed."
- Joy Orpen