Story by: Julie Kruer on October 2, 2023
Arguing with your child isn’t something that excites most parents, but that’s not the case for David Williams. David’s 7-year-old son, Oaks, is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal. Thanks to Norton Children’s Autism Center, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, Oaks now has a specialized electronic tablet that has given him a voice for the first time. The tablet allows Oaks to push buttons for hundreds of words, and he’s beginning to form complete sentences.
Talk to a member of the Norton Children’s Autism Center team.
“He can say ‘bathroom,’ ‘shower,’ ‘wash hands’ or even ‘enchilada’ or ‘tacos.’ We are having arguments now,” David said happily. “Oaks loves to swim, so he will push the button for the word ‘swim,’ but I have to tell him no, we can’t swim right now.”
David and his family recognized developmental differences in Oaks at an early age and sought intervention due to his family’s experience in health care and education. David’s father, Stephen A. Williams, retired from Norton Healthcare as president and CEO in 2016, and his mother, Kathy Williams, worked as a teacher for 25 years. Oaks began receiving therapy before age 4, but getting access to services they needed at the time was difficult because of increased demand.
“After Norton Children’s and the University of Louisville combined resources, the increase in the amount of support and resources made available has been dramatic to see,” David said.
With the opening of a new, 13,000-square-foot Norton Children’s Autism Center location in Hikes Point, David said he feels that they have access to all the resources and services they need at home in Louisville.
David especially appreciates the new center’s suburban location.
“It’s very difficult to bring Oaks into an urban area with unexpected noises and busy surroundings,” he said. “If getting to therapy is traumatic, then you know the therapy isn’t going to go well.”
Echo, a facility dog with Norton Healthcare’s Heel, Dog, Heal program, visits patients at the center. Echo is available thanks to a gift in honor of Oaks from the Williams family through the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Research shows that facility dogs offer a therapeutic benefit to patients. Grace M. Kuravackel, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical director of Norton Children’s Autism Center, said center staff are deeply grateful to the Williams family for making the dog possible.
“Very often, children and youth on the autism spectrum respond to animals — dogs in particular — because they are so nonjudgmental and provide unconditional emotional support,” she said.
The new center is staffed by pediatric neurologists, pediatricians, sleep medicine specialists, gastroenterologists and more. There is also a robust feeding therapy program with a feeding therapy kitchen, and a transition-to-adulthood program with a simulation apartment for youth to learn independent living skills.
“We are looking to the future for when children like Oaks transition to adulthood,” Dr. Kuravackel said. “We are gearing up transitional supports and interventions for our youth with regard to employment opportunities, independent living and focusing on positive aspects of life such as expanding food interests, improving nutrition and increasing movement for our youth on the autism spectrum.”
For David, knowing that the new center will offer long-term support has given him hope for Oaks’ future.
“It makes parents feel like they have options, that it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Having a child on the autism spectrum is going to change your life, but — over time and with this support — you can all adjust to a new normal.”
Our Heel, Dog, Heal program offers highly trained facility dogs and handlers to provide comfort and support to patients and families during their time of need. In addition to Echo, who was trained by Paws With Purpose, there are nine other dogs at various Norton Children’s and Norton Healthcare locations.
Even as the program has grown since starting with two dogs in 2017, our dogs still receive many more patient requests than they can fulfill. Consider a gift to help continue to grow the Heel, Dog, Heal program and provide even more four-legged caregivers to support patients!
To learn more or donate, visit NortonHeelDogHeal.com.