How one special dog helped an autistic child.

By Suzanne Rust

Having a child with autism doesn't dim the playful spirt in the Hill household. "Harrison, Holland and Hannah. In text shorthand, we call them H1, H2 and H3, known collectively as 3-H Wrecking, because they can destroy a house in 30 minutes!” joke Barry and Leigh Hill about their lively tribe. The couple, who met on a blind date 25 years ago, make a great team. “Barry is fun-loving, smart and hardworking,” says Leigh. “He’s the life of the party, which means I can sit quietly in the corner, unnoticed, as I prefer. He’s a great father and wonderful husband.” Barry is equally impressed with his wife. “She can bake a French pastry, manage three kids’ busy schedules and change a flat tire. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty!” he marvels.

Parenthood, as it often does, gave the couple a different take on life. Leigh says that it has made her more responsible and self-aware, and Barry believes the kids have taught him patience, focus and unconditional love. His youngest gave him an unexpected gift: “I always thought that if one of my children was born with a disability, I wouldn’t be able to cope,” says Barry. “Having a child with autism taught me I’m stronger than I thought I was.”

In December 2006, when Hannah was just over 2, the couple noticed something odd. Although six months earlier she’d been saying the typical baby words, like “mama” and “dada,” by her two-year appointment she wasn’t. “The pediatrician said the calm yet startling words, ‘I think you should take her to a pediatric neurologist.’ The diagnosis, that she is on the autism spectrum, came shortly thereafter,” Barry shares. The shock didn’t really sink in for some time, since Hannah didn’t appear in any way different. “She was simply a toddler who wasn’t talking.” They noticed later that in social situations some of her behaviors stood out, especially in public places where people weren’t aware of her condition.

“Hannah was 5 years old and confined to a large stroller because she would bolt and wasn’t aware of the dangers around her, like cars and strangers,” says Barry. “Leigh asked the school what we could do to keep her safe. They told us of the Heeling Autism program from Guiding Eyes for the Blind and their wonderful service dogs. There was a long waiting list. Over three and a half years passed until we got the call: ‘We have the perfect dog—Leila.’ ”

Hannah has had her dog for two years now and is no longer confined to a stroller—or worse, just kept at home. “In public, Hannah is tethered to Leila with a special belt and Leila is trained to brace if Hannah tries to flee. She’s able to go out with the family to the mall or a restaurant,” explains Leigh. “Leila has all the rights and privileges of a guide dog for the blind.”

The Hills grow weary of what they believe are common misconceptions surrounding autism, including the role of vaccines, which they don’t believe are the culprit. Barry acknowledges that although the movie Rain Man did wonders to introduce the disorder to the masses, it also promoted the myth of the autistic savant. “When people meet Hannah, they always ask, ‘What’s her special talent?’ They often expect her to play the piano like a virtuoso, paint like van Gogh or be able to count a large pile of matchsticks in seconds, like Dustin Hoffman. I just say her exceptional gift is being happy and giggly 24/7!”

Who is the silliest person in the family? The most serious?

That's a hard question to answer, since Harrison, Holly and Barry are all silly. Barry has always told them that silly is good! —Leigh

The most serious is definitely Leigh, who just rolls her eyes at her goofy husband and children and is generally unimpressed with their lame attempts at comedy. —Barry

You have talked about Hannah’s best qualities. What about Harrison and Holly?

Harrison is our thinker. He is very science and math minded and on the honor roll in high school. But, like many teenage boys, he spends most of his time in front of his Xbox.

Holly is our artist-performer. She's always singing, dancing, acting, laughing or writing her first novel—which she won't let anyone read! When I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she strikes a pose and says "Famous!"

The one thing we both are most proud of is that we have, so far, successfully raised our children to be colorblind. We never said things like "your black friend, Jake," or "your Asian friend, Sara." They were just Jake and Sara. We always tell them, “There are good people and bad people of every nationality, race, language and religion. It’s up to you to find the good people!” 

Holly and Harrison, is there anthing you'd like to share about Hannah?

I would tell people that there's nothing wrong with her, really. She just acts differently, and it's not her fault. —Holly

I used to get embarrassed when my friends came over, because sometimes Hannah flaps her hands and makes weird noises. But now I tell them she's a normal person inside, she just has a different personality outside. —Harrison

What advice would you give to other parents of autistic children?

Be very wary of quacks and charlatans promoting a cure, because they're out there and they want all your money. If you think something might help your child, try it on your own and be observant with your own eyes. If you don't see a change in a few weeks, move on. You are your child's best advocate, and you know better than anyone if something is working or it isn't. —Barry

Be highly vigilant with their education and socialization, since these are key factors to fit into society, both as a child and an adult. —Leigh

What is the biggest misconception about autistic children? What do you want people to know?

It is very important for your readers to know that vaccines do not and never did cause autism. The 1998 report that claimed this was later found to be fraudulent, and the British doctor who wrote it was stripped of his medical license. Sadly, the Internet and Facebook didn’t get the news and the myth persists. —Leigh

When are you all happiest?

We're all happiest when we’re together—family game night, going for a swim or just hanging out. “Planet Hill” is best as a team!

For more information about Hannah’s service dog and Heeling Autism, click here.

Photo Credit: Scott Jones