Story by: Henry Winkelhake Reviewed by Allison M. Theobald, APRN on May 17, 2023
Being a facility dog requires patience, a calm demeanor and adaptability. These qualities are even more important for dogs supporting children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD often experience anxiety, stress induced by new environments, difficulty with social engagement and a need for sensory support. The Norton Children’s Autism Center, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, has state-of-the-art equipment and resources to support these young patients, but many find the help they need in the form of their best friend, Echo.
More information on the Norton Children’s Autism Center is available on NortonChildrens.com.
Echo is one of the newest members of the Heel, Dog, Heal facility dog team. The nearly 4-year-old golden retriever officially completed two years of training in February. Echo now supports patients at the Norton Children’s Autism Center alongside his handler, Allison M. Theobald, APRN, who is a nurse practitioner at the center. Together, this pairing at a Norton Children’s facility represents Norton Healthcare’s first teaming of a provider and a facility dog.
Research shows that facility dogs provide extensive benefit to patients. These animals support emotional wellness in a variety of ways, providing comfort and stability for patients. For patients with ASD, the sense of connection, acceptance and safety from a facility dog can deliver a soothing effect and open the door for improved results from care.
“I wanted us to have a facility dog at the center after reading research on the benefits of animal thereapy for kids with autism. When we started the process, I didn’t realize Echo would need a full-time handler to work and live with. I volunteered, and after seeing the impact he’s made, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Allison said.
Every patient is unique, and Echo does a tremendous job of staying flexible to provide the right kind of support for each patient. He knows when to keep his distance with kids who like having a dog in the exam room but not necessarily front and center. Others are more eager to interact with Echo, and he’s all too happy to oblige by playing fetch, dropping his toy basketball through a hoop or kicking a soccer ball in the hall.
Echo is known to lend a paw with behavior modeling, showing patients there’s nothing to fear as he gets his temperature checked or vital signs measured. He also shows off his talents to encourage patients to participate in motor skills testing. Echo is a helper to parents too, by providing a welcome distraction to their children so the adults can discuss medical history, medications and recent behavior patterns with providers.
For all his capability to support autism care, Echo’s greatest gift seems to be his ability to inspire joy.
“The kids get so excited when they see Echo. Some will jump up and down. Some have limited verbal skills, but they’ll still say ‘Echo’ or ‘dog,’” Allison said.
Employees at the Norton Children’s Autism Center are always happy to see their four-legged co-worker. Just as he does for patients, Echo also reduces stress and anxiety for staff, providing a boost in the midst of a challenging workweek.
Allison reports seeing great progress with her patients since she started working with Echo. She’s also been delighted to see how meaningful Echo’s companionship is for patients.
“Echo is a friend for kids who may not have many at school. He provides unconditional love for those who may feel misunderstood or like they struggle to fit in,” Allison said. “Patients will leave our visits and tell him, ‘Bye, Echo. I love you. You’re my best friend,’ on their way out.”
Echo was funded by the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation with support from the Williams family.
Click here to learn more about the Norton Children’s Autism Center.
Click here for information on how to support the Heel, Dog, Heal program, which is made possible by the Norton Healthcare Foundation and the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation.