About a Boy

Family support helps children cope after diagnosis

by Mary Frances Hill

For most parents, a child’s hug at the door at the end of a long work day comes as a pleasant routine. But when Janet Keall opened the door to her Vancouver home one day a few years ago, an embrace from her son Harrison was monumental: it marked the beginning of a new phase of life for the entire family.

“I remember the day, Harrison was eight years old. I came home from work, and for the first time ever, he ran to the door and gave me a hug,” Janet recalls.

That grand gesture of affection was a turning point for Harrison, Janet Keall’s intelligent, endearing son, who had up to that point dealt with so much. It was a breakthrough the family had been hoping for for years: finally, physical touch from a child who had once seemed so emotionally distant.

When Harrison was a toddler, Janet noticed he was an intense little guy with an unbreakable focus.  She and Harrison’s stepfather Hod Pharis noticed that Harrison withdrew in social situations and reacted to new experiences and minor setbacks by acting out.

“When he was two, he was obsessive about lining up and counting cars. He never made eye contact; when someone would talk to him he would answer looking down, and when he was faced with being interactive with the world from preschool to kindergarten, he couldn’t handle it at all,” Janet recalls.

In January 2011, Janet took him to BC Children’s Hospital child psychiatrist Dr. Keith Marriage, who got to know and understand him. Their meeting led to a diagnosis: Harrison was dealing with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder and absence seizures.

Through therapy and medication, Harrison has changed from being withdrawn and having meltdowns to being able to function in social settings like a typical child.

Dr. Marriage says the biggest thing that he and other caregivers at BC Children’s Hospital do is help Janet understand his difficulties and help her find resources.

“Autism spectrum is like a social learning disability. It doesn’t mean [the child] is not bright in other areas; it’s harder for you to learn about social things, to understand other people, their intentions, their emotions,” says Dr. Marriage.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t learn. It takes more work, and it takes longer,” he adds.

Now 13, Harrison has become more confident; he’s taking on new, profound interests and engaging in pursuits Janet never would have imagined even a few years ago.

Harrison has overcome many hurdles since his diagnosis. For instance, he once harboured a fear of insects so overwhelming that he wouldn’t leave the house.

The changes she sees in him today have been remarkable, says Janet.

“This last summer we did a family trip up to Inuvik and couldn’t get him back inside the RV. He loved the wilderness and fresh air and caught his first fish and was very proud. It was a big moment.”

As he negotiates the emotional minefield of adolescence and the social expectations of high school, Harrison will continue to need support as he develops his coping skills.

Mom and son have worked out a creative way to do this.

“We have a system where he will text me on his cell phone and tell me of the issues, and then we work on it together. This helps him communicate his feelings in a safe way while I listen and then give him suggestions.”

Indeed, Janet says the bond between family members, and continual emotional support for Harrison seems to have provided the fuel for his growth and maturity. “As a mother, you’re devoted. What keeps me going every day is my love for him.” 

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