Therapist is ‘godsend’ for special needs kids, families


Carol Wingenter, 50, an occupational therapist, plays a game with 5-year-old Gabriela Smies, April 23, designed to develop her fine motor skills, in the clinic she created in her Brookfield home. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

For a child with autism, or one with sensory issues, living in isolation because of an inability to communicate and socialize with others can be utterly disabling.

Parents trying to coax their child out of the lonely place are often frustrated and depressed, consumed with unanswered questions and often, left with little outside help.

When Paul and Maureen Mikna realized that their eldest son Adam had high functioning autism, they sought help from occupational therapist Carol Wingenter. Years earlier, Maureen worked with Wingenter and was so impressed by her techniques, that she was the first person of whom they thought when looking for help for their son.

In an effort to provide the most loving and thorough care to children with autism, Asperger syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other sensory issues, Wingenter set up a clinic in her Brookfield home after years of working in hospitals and clinics. 

“She is truly an angel,” said Paul, a member of Holy Apostles Parish in New Berlin. “She has her whole basement set up like a physical therapy clinic and is a godsend for people with special disabilities. In addition to finding unique ways to reach these types of kids, she also provides babysitting services, and even does baking with them.”

It can be difficult to receive insurance funding for therapy when dealing with autism and other sensory disorders, which leaves parents fighting a frustrating battle in addition to the ones they face with their children.

“It is really hard and we all end up being at our wit’s end trying to get help for our kids,” said Paul. “Carol works with us and charges reasonable rates, and she does it in the welcoming environment of her home. She gives them so much TLC and has done so well with Adam that he is doing fine now as a freshman at Pius High School.”

Although Wingenter works more than 40 hours a week with 50-60 clients who come on varying schedules, she considers it a labor of love, rather than a job.

“I love what I do, and my only complaint is that there aren’t eight days in a week so I can get caught up,” she said, laughing. “It’s very rewarding for me. Working with these kids and their families, I learn so much and they teach me about life and how to succeed and what to do with what we are given. They have helped me look at positives in any situation. I especially enjoy seeing the families accept the differences, learn how to work with them and finally realize that the differences can actually be a gift.”

People of Faith
Name: Carol Wingenter
Age: 50
Parish: St Dominic, Brookfield
Occupation: Occupational therapist
Book recently read: “A Different Life,” by Quinn Bradlee
Favorite movie: “Blind Side” and “The Sound of Music”
Favorite quotation: “… if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Mt 17:20
(Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

After the initial assessment, Wingenter helps families understand their children and how to focus on what their children are able to accomplish, rather than on what they cannot do.

“Parents become more comfortable with their parenting skills after we work together and learn what to do and what not to do,” she said. “I deal with a lot of kids who have sensory issues and are sensitive to noises, only eat certain foods, and don’t process environmental stimuli like you or I might. If they encounter touch in school, for example, their body might go into a flight or fright reaction and it may be taken as hurtful or aggressive and then they might strike out. So I work with the child on how not to react in an unacceptable way when ordinary things like this happen.”

By integrating coping techniques that include strategies to feed the individual’s system and state of knowing where their body is in space, Wingenter builds trust with her clients and helps them learn to be more independent and able to move unencumbered.

“Sometimes the children are fearful of any movement imposed on them,” she said. “But I do see progress, although it might seem slow. I remember I had one boy who came to me and he basically shrieked and was unable to do much else. But after working with him, he began to read and do multiplication ahead of his peers, and continued to meet any challenges that came his way. I see that with a lot of kids that I work with.”

It’s often difficult for outsiders and parents to grasp the high intelligence exhibited by many with Asperger’s and autism. Challenging for them is the contrasting behaviors that on the outside might seem peculiar, but correctly directed, can be quite rewarding.

“If they can channel the brilliance and if they can see the gift of intelligence and be able to find a niche for that gift, it really helps,” said Wingenter. “The outside world looks at them as odd or strange and if they only focus on that, they won’t appreciate the gifts and special quirkiness they can offer.”

Wingenter’s success rate in working with her clients is so great that she has never needed to advertise her services. Clients hear about her through word of mouth and support groups, and some physicians seek her help in working with their patients.

“I do seem to get a lot of referrals,” she said. “And I appreciate it as the work really gives me perspective to know what is important in life. I also recognize how important faith is because the families I work with who have a strong faith do far better than those who struggle with it. There is a level of acceptance with the faith-filled parents because they are able to see the positives rather than just the negatives with their children.”

When she isn’t working, the 50-year-old Wingenter devotes much of her free time to volunteering in the confirmation program, Risen Program for Special Needs Children, and the Just Faith program at her parish, St. Dominic in Brookfield.

“I was baptized there and I really enjoy helping where I can,” she said. “I also help with the gardening and enjoy doing that because it is so different from my other activities. My weeks go by so fast and I enjoy every day that I get to help others.”

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