Meet the Nurses: Showing Empathy Through Autism

Note: This is the cover feature for the August issue of Centerville-Washington Neighbors Magazine, which is mailed monthly to 3,661 homes in Centerville and Washington Township. I am posting it here so those of you who do not receive the magazine can read this story! Photos are by Ashley Mauro of Ashley Mauro Photography.

By Jeff Louderback

This is a year of milestones for Michael and Julie Nurse.

In January, they moved to Washington Township from the familiar surroundings of Buffalo, where they had called home since 2002. Michael’s career brought the family here, and he was authoring a new chapter, too. A longtime TV station executive, he led the same broadcast company in western New York for 17 years. He joined Sinclair Broadcast Company as vice president and general manager of WKEF-TV (ABC), WRGT-TV (FOX) & MY-TV/Dayton, OH.

Those changes alone would create the story for a memorable 2020, but the ultimate achievement will arrive in October. That is when the couple will celebrate their 25th anniversary. For any husband and wife, the silver anniversary is momentous. For the Nurses, it symbolizes a testament of resilience, devotion and the unbreakable love of a parent.

Michael and Julie have a 23-year-old daughter, Abigail; and 21-year-old twins, Danny and Hannah. Danny was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), better known as autism, when he was 18 months old. He is termed as low functioning, which is the most severe form of autism. Studies show that many couples who have a child with autism divorce because of the familial pressures and struggles. Michael and Julie admittedly endured a challenging period of adjustment when they first learned Danny has autism, but they strive to tell parents of children with special needs that it is possible to flourish as a married couple and as parents.

The Nurses journey stared in the Boston area. Michael was the youngest of eight and was raised in Framingham while Julie was the youngest of six and spent her childhood in Westford. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and Julie graduated from the University of Massachusetts. They met at the TV station where they worked in Boston.

They married in 1995, and their path led to Washington D.C. and then Buffalo, where Michael was tasked to head the sales division of an ABC affiliate.

It was a blur for the couple when they had three kids under the age of two, Julie recalled. Danny’s pediatrician suspected he might have autism for the year leading to the diagnosis. The Nurses took Danny to a specialist, who conducted tests and then delivered the news that altered their lives.

“It’s a crushing feeling to hear that diagnosis – to hear that there is something different about the child you love,” Michael said. “It felt like the hopes and dreams for his future were suddenly gone. We had questions, and we were nervous and scared because of the unknown.”

Michael and Julie poured themselves into learning as much as possible about autism. They discovered there was a vast spectrum. Some children with autism are high functioning. Others are not. Some children emerge and improve. Some don’t.

“For a while, we chased every cure and every treatment, hoping his symptoms would disappear or at least improve,” Julie said. “At first, he would say a word here and there, but then he had a second regression, and hasn’t spoken since he was 4.

“We participated in parental support groups, and we saw families falling apart because of the challenges and pressures,” she added. “We reached a point where we decided to embrace the wonderful person he is and make life as happy as we can for him while also balancing the girls’ lives.”

Parents of a special needs child can get so obsessed with that child’s care that attention to the other kids is lessened, Julie said. The couple was determined to not let that happen in their family.

“We made it a priority to have fun outings with the girls, like going to the movies,” Julie said. “So we found a special needs sitter, and enjoyed regular movie nights.”

Danny communicates, but not through spoken words.

“If he wants something, bring it to us,” Michael said.

On cue, Danny walks to the kitchen table and places a package of cupcakes in front of Michael.

“Let’s wait before we have that, buddy. We’re about to eat dinner,” Michael tells Danny.

Danny walks away with the package in his hands. Determined to have a sweet treat before dinner, he returns a few moments later and gives Michael the cupcakes once more.

“I’ve always said he has the traits of a successful salesman,” Michael said with a grin. “He is persistent. Sometimes, he doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Abigail and Hannah adore their brother. Abigail attends Rochester Institute of Technology studying film while Hannah is pursuing a degree in physical education with a concentration in teaching children with disabilities at Slippery Rock in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve never known him without autism,” Hannah said about Danny. “When I was younger, I would think now and then how nice it would be to have a traditional experience with my twin. As I grew older, I developed a greater appreciation of who he is.

“I’ve learned life lessons from him I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise,” she added. “He has helped shape who I am – from the way I look at life to my career ambitions. Empathy is the most important life trait a person can have. Compassion is a close second. We’ve developed both of those traits for others because of what we’ve learned from Danny.”

The community has welcomed the Nurses with kindness and support, Michael says. Danny attended a special needs school in Buffalo. He is now a student at Centerville High School, where he quickly adapted to his new surroundings.

“Lauren Dickey, who is Danny’s teacher, and her aides, Jenna and Kenya, have been remarkable,” Julie said. “He even delivers mail to classrooms. They created jobs to keep him moving because of his vigorous energy.”

The move to Washington Township brought a fresh start to Danny as well as Michael and Julie. Abigail and Hannah are usually away at college, but since their schools were closed, they returned to their new home and the family has treasured the additional bonding time. Danny approves.

“There are many blessings when you have a special needs child – blessings that you would otherwise take for granted. All I really want for him to know is he is loved and he is safe,” Michael said. “During the spring, we went out of town for the weekend, and when we returned, Danny was beaming, and that warms our hearts.

“He missed us, and he was glad we were home,” Michael added. “He can’t express it with spoken words, but there are ways he shows his affection, and that he cares. That is a true and meaningful expression of love.”