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‘I’d love more independence’: Leicester teen whose life with severe autism could be transformed by assistance dog

The family of a Leicester teenager with severe autism believes an assistance dog would transform the quality of her life for the better. Poppy Rushin, from Hamilton, suffers from sensory overload and is also visually impaired.

The 16-year-old, who attends a special secondary school, loves dancing, playing the piano and drums, as well as arts and crafts. But because of her acute condition, she needs to wear ear defenders when leaving the house, and often still needs the reassurance of holding her mum’s hand when out and about.

Poppy was diagnosed with global development delay and visual impairment when she was just a few months old. At the age of four, she was diagnosed with autism.

Now she is older, her family has been investigating ways to offer her more independence, boost her confidence and help her to realise her potential. It led them to contact Supporting Paws, a community interest company (CIC) that trains assistance and companion dogs for a variety of disabilities and needs.

Mum Tess Rushin, who works as a social media manager, believes an assistance dog may well be the key to helping Poppy take her important next steps in the world. “An assistance dog would help Poppy become more independent, to allow her to do things like go around the local shops alone, and to help calm her down when she becomes agitated,” she said.

“We visited Supporting Paws for an assessment and Poppy got on really well with the dog we met. We’ve now put down a deposit and are waiting for a suitable puppy to become available and be trained.”

Poppy said: “My diagnosis doesn’t mean anything to me really, but my mum says it helps to explain things to people. I go to a special secondary school and we do something different every day.

“I like my dance lessons which I do on a Wednesday and Saturday, I like playing the piano and the drums and making music.

“I really like arts and crafts, and painting my nails. When I’m out and about, I like to wear my ear defenders as noises can be very loud to me.

“I am quite an outgoing person, but if I’m in an unfamiliar place, I usually rely on my mum for help with sensory issues. A trained assistance dog would be able to provide reassurance and help with any sensory issues.

“They would also be trained on things like crossing busy roads and walking slowly when needed – for example walking down the stairs as I have issues with depth perception. Now that I am growing up, I would love to do more things independently, and having an autism assistance dog will help me do this. I would be able to go round the shops on my own with them.”

Poppy made some instant friends during her visit to Supporting Paws. “I went to visit Charlotte and her dog Daisy from Supporting Paws and got along really well with Daisy,” she said. “I held the lead and stroked her.”

She added: “They said that I was confident with her and interacted well with her. After that and lots of paperwork I was accepted onto the assistance dog scheme. They said that my twin brother, Sam, will need to help with the handler training of the dog.”

Her family has already raised more than £3,000 of the £9,500 needed for the dog through social media appeals, selling old toys and other items through Facebook Marketplace and fundraising events. Poppy herself took part in a Marvel Superheroes event last summer, walking 10,000 steps over a week.

Friends of her twin brother Sam have also raised funds from other sponsored events. One friend ran 100 miles over a month while another did 2,000 squats over the same period.

“We’re very grateful for how the community has got behind us to help with fundraising,” said Tess, who also has three older children. “Every penny donated brings Poppy closer to getting her dog.”

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