Heather Wright believes that God answers prayers, and sometimes the answer is “Arf.”
Wright’s autistic 4-year-old son, Gabriel, has been approved for a Wilderwood Service Dog, and Wright is trying to raise the $10,000 needed to secure the animal.
It took Wright a long time to send in the application because she wasn’t sure a service dog was the solution to Gabriel’s needs.
“I did a lot of praying about it,” she says. “The more I read and the more I researched, the more I thought, ‘This is really a good thing.’”
One of Wright’s hesitations was that she feared a service dog might make Gabriel stand out too much.
“When you look at him, you can’t tell there’s anything different about him,” says Wright, “and I didn’t want him to carry a huge flag that says, ‘Hey, there’s something different.’ I felt that’s what the dog would be, but (the Wilderwood staff) assured me that in the children’s eyes, he goes from the strange kid who sits in the corner and doesn’t talk to anybody to the cool kid with the dog.”
Now Wright’s biggest concern is raising money for the dog. Wilderwood’s $10,000 fee is due in two installments: $5,000 in October and $5,000 in January. Wright held a candle fundraiser earlier this month and plans to place donation jars at area businesses. She has a Web site, www.giftforgabriel.com, where people can get information and contribute.
She also has a white elephant/hot dog/bake sale planned on July 17 at her church, St. Paul Lutheran, 429 Sandy Springs Road, and is working on a back-to-school carnival at Starbucks next to Target for August.
Kevin Strickland, pastor of St. Paul, says the church is glad to help the Wrights.
“I told her that we’d be more than happy to do what we could to host (an event) or what have you for Gabriel,” says Strickland, whose congregation prayed for Gabriel to be approved by Wilderwood. “This is a child who has the right just like any other child to go to school, to go to the store, to enjoy church, to have friends, but he needs to do so in a way that he’s kept safe, and that dog will be his helper.
“We actually have another family in the church that trains service dogs. They bring the service dog to worship.”
Wright and her now ex-husband, Chris, realized Gabriel was different from the beginning - he was highly sensitive to sound, and he didn’t cry when his diaper needed changing.
“When he turned a year old, he had one word,” says Wright. “When he turned 2, he still only had one word. And that’s when we put everything in motion and said, ‘OK, we need to find out what’s going on with this kid.’”
Gabriel’s pediatrician sent him to have a hearing test and to have his speech evaluated. Then Gabriel got into the Tennessee Early Intervention System, which connected him with a Knoxville therapy center that works with developmentally challenged children. It took several more months before Gabriel was seen and evaluated by a child psychiatrist and finally diagnosed with autism.
Gabriel is in a special-education preschool program during the school year. When Wright is working (she’s been at Denso for 13 years) Gabriel stays with his father or Wright’s parents.
“It’s a family effort,” says Wright. “Everybody pitches in and helps out.”
Gabriel has to have constant attention.
“He is 4, but he is the size of a 6-year-old,” says Wright. “We’re still going through potty training. His speech is about that of a 3-year-old, and his developmental level with his fine and gross motor skills runs about 2 1/2. He has severe sensory issues, and that’s the biggest battle that we’re fighting right now.”
Gabriel doesn’t understand the concept of danger, she says.
“When I get him out of the car, sometimes he’ll just take off running - across a parking lot, across somebody’s yard, out into the street,” she says. “He does not understand the danger to himself. He is absolutely fascinated with anything that spins or turns, so I cannot leave him alone in a room with a fan.
“Somebody has to be with him or watching him almost 24/7.”
A Wilderwood dog will help keep Gabriel away from danger and will be a teacher and companion.
“There have been times that I have woken up in the morning and Gabriel took everything out of my refrigerator and put it in a very neat line across my kitchen floor and then went back to bed, and I had no idea he had been up,” says Wright. “The dog will alert me when he gets up like that in the middle of the night.
“The dog will be able to catch him when he takes off running. I believe the dog will be trained to keep him away from certain items like fans. So those are the kinds of things that I’m hoping the dog will be able to help with on a safety level.
“On a more personal level for him it’s stability: The dog is always with him. No matter where he goes, there’s something familiar right there, which I’m hoping is going to help with transitions. Sometimes transitioning him from one place to another is very difficult. On a sensory level, the dog will be taught to cuddle with him. These kids (with autism) need a lot of deep pressure, and with basically the weight of dog, the dog will be able to provide that with him.”
It takes about 18 months from approval until a service dog is ready for its owner, so Wright has quite a wait. In the meantime, she appreciates the support she gets from her family, church, co-workers and other parents at the therapy center.
“We have our own little support group,” she says. “There’s a lady that I have become very, very good friends with, and her son was accepted by Wilderwood a week before Gabriel was. We’re going through this together. She calls me and cries on my shoulder, and I call her and cry on hers.”
Still, Wright says she wouldn’t change a thing about Gabriel.
“I saw a T-shirt, and I’m going to buy it when I have a little bit of extra money,” she says. “It said, ‘I asked God for a blessing, and He sent me my autistic son.’ Because he truly has been. I have seen the world from such a completely different perspective in working with him. He has taught me so much, and he still teaches me every day. I can’t imagine him being any different. I am so blessed to have him exactly the way he is.”
Strickland finds Gabriel inspiring.
“You can tell that he loves every moment of life,” says the pastor. “He gets really excited when he sees me or when he walks into the church. I’ve seen a huge difference in him just in the two years that I’ve been here.
“All of us are made in the image of God, but the image of God looks just a little different for each person. And just because someone has a different ability, it doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of being a positive influence in the world.”
Wright is hopeful for Gabriel’s future.
“He has what they consider high-functioning autism,” she says. “I believe that he’s going to be a productive member of society. He is going to have a job and a family and a life of his own. I think my job is to teach him the coping skills to get there.”
Gabriel interrupts his mother to share some news. Only part of his conversation sounds like English.
“He had to come tell me what the cat said,” Wright explains. “He speaks his own language. One day he looked up at me and he said, ‘Mommy, Pandora wants to know what’s going on.’ Pandora is our cat. Ever since then we have joked that that’s why we don’t understand him, because he’s speaking cat.”
Wright tries not to feel overwhelmed by the amount she has to raise.
“We are going to raise the money,” she says. “Somehow, some way by the grace of God, we’re going to raise the money. I’ve prayed about this too long. There has got to be a plan.”
Wright realizes that getting Gabriel to that life she sees for him will take a lot of work.
“It’s hard raising him; it’s hard watching him struggle. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch him try to write, try to figure out how to socialize with other kids his age.
“So when something like that happens, you just have to laugh about it. Otherwise, it would just break your heart all the time.”