Name: Katie Willard
Title: Communication Specialist, The Stern Center for Language and Learning
Hometown: Underhill, Vt.
SLP Katie Willard helps her clients navigate the bumps of social communication.
Katie Willard is passionate about two things: helping her clients learn to communicate effectively and skiing. A native of Vermont, Willard grew up skiing and has always made it a priority. When she was in graduate school, in fact, she chose to live a 55-minute drive from campus so she could stay within six miles of the Smuggler's Notch ski resort.
"If I could do it, I'd totally become a ski bum," she says. "Luckily my husband works at Smuggler's Notch so we get to spend our weekends ski racing."
Besides, she isn't really serious about the ski bum fantasy. During her non-skiing hours, Willard is a speech-language pathologist at the Stern Center in Williston, Vt., and she wouldn't have it any other way. She has been there for three years and spends her days conducting social communication evaluations and running social cognition and communication groups. Although many of her clients are children, she also works with adults and has worked with college-age students who have pragmatic language needs since 2008.
"I love working with them!" she says. "It's not unusual to see a 140 IQ but very little social skills—it's so interesting."
Willard made a name for herself in the northern region of Vermont as a go-to SLP for social cognition and communication. She works diligently to help develop pragmatic language in her students on the spectrum—a passion that's driven by personal experience.
As a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington in 1996, she spent much of her time with her aunt and uncle who lived in nearby Winooski. She would hang out, do laundry and help watch her young cousin, Elliot. At 2, Elliot was having trouble communicating and was a challenge to handle. She recalls being frustrated because even small tasks like making him breakfast were difficult because he couldn't communicate what he wanted. Elliot was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at age 3, which explained his behavior, but Willard recalls it being somewhat frightening.
"Back in 1998 it was still the ‘A-word,' and my aunt and uncle went through a lot of grief—we all did," she says. "There just wasn't as much information about it as there is now, and it was scary."
Her cousin's diagnosis coincided with Willard's need to find a career direction. Having just graduated from UVM with a degree in elementary education, she decided to apply to the graduate program in communication sciences and disorders. She felt a connection with her cousin and wanted to help him and other kids like him succeed. During the second year of her program, she became the graduate student for the Vermont Rural Autism Project and traveled throughout the state educating parents and teachers and providing assessments. She describes the experience as "huge" and the springboard to her next steps of working in schools and then in private practice.
It was during her seven years in the public schools that she began to develop a real knack for targeting social cognition and communication. She coordinated social groups and found that teachers, parents and students were more and more supportive. She began to receive requests to help other schools organize similar programs. Ultimately, she opened her own practice as a consultant to schools and other organizations.
"It was so much fun and no one else seemed to be doing it," she says. "There was such a need."
By 2010, Willard had become a wife and a mom. Her husband's job was taking them back to Smuggler's Notch, so Willard joined the Stern Center to continue to help clients with ASDs and related disorders reach their pragmatic language goals. She wants to grow her services to young adults who need help with the social world. And, of course, she hopes to keep skiing.
"The only time I want to take a break from skiing is in the summer," she says, laughing. "That's when I break out my mountain bike!"