“I Have a Son. His Name is Kasen.”
By Dwain Hebda // Photos by Ian Lyle
In 2017, Raven Henry watched her Russellville home burn to the ground.
It was a conflagration rife with symbolism: The loss of so much inside, the uncertain process of picking up the pieces, and the searing questions of why this happened and how to move on. Henry couldn’t help but equate it to her life; so closely did circumstances mirror the fire.
“I prayed for peace. I prayed my way through. That was how I made it,” she says. “I just asked God to give me peace throughout the whole situation. It was too much for me. I knew it was something that I had to deal with, but I wasn’t relying on my own strength. I was very much in denial of the situation.”
She pauses. “It was just a mess.”
Seven years earlier, life had been completely different as Henry joyfully welcomed her only child, Kasen. Entering the world on Nov. 19, 2010, the 7-pound, 6-ounce infant was the epitome of a healthy baby boy.
“Very healthy. When he was born, he was a normal child,” his mother says. “He progressed at a rate that was with his other peers. He walked at 10 months; he crawled at six months. He started to babble little words: ‘Mama, Dada.’ Everything was on track.”
Kasen was the center of Henry’s world, the very breath of life in her body. She couldn’t have known, 18 months in, that putting him to bed one night would be the last routine thing either would experience for a long time to come.
“One night, Kasen got really sick, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. I couldn’t get his fever down, no matter what I did,” Henry says, her voice steadied over time and retelling. “He had a temperature that went up to about 105 degrees, and he had a seizure. Following the seizure, we took him to the emergency room.”
ER personnel also struggled to lower the child’s temperature, administering every medicinal and cooling treatment in their arsenal. But, to Henry’s horror, the toddler slipped into a coma, a state that he would survive, but from which he would never fully return.
“After he came out of the coma, Kasen was never the same,” Henry says. “The child that I knew before was never the same after that. No communication. No eye contact. Just nothing. He became nonverbal. Everything just went really, really down.”
Henry’s new normal was something she struggled to accept. The child she loved so much, more than her own life, suddenly wouldn’t look at her, and the chattering babble and laughter they shared was replaced by Kasen pleading to be let out of his frightening new world the only way he knew how.
“Kasen would just scream, every day. Every day,” Henry says. “It was so frustrating for him, because he was trying to adapt to this new life, this new journey that he had started. Physically, he was able to do everything that he could do before; he was able to get up, move around. He lost no movement, but mentally, everything kind of declined.
“As his mom, I was so very much in denial. I didn’t want to believe that something could happen to him one day that could change everything for him for years to come.”
Henry’s mother, Sandra, had seen Kasen’s symptoms before. In fact, she’d seen a little bit of everything in nearly 40 years as a special-ed teacher back in West Helena, where Henry grew up. And, she was one of the few people who could cut through the fog in which her daughter found herself.
“My mom told me, she said, ‘Raven, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I really believe that Kasen could be autistic,’” Henry says.
The young single mother had no idea what autism was then — not when her mother mentioned it, nor when they finally got back results from a battery of tests confirming Sandra’s unofficial diagnosis. But as the medical professionals reeled through individual talking points, Henry started to feel something rising up inside, something that bubbled over when discussing Kasen’s prognosis.
“Kasen was diagnosed with mild to moderate high-functioning autism, meaning he would be able to function, he would be able to walk,” she says. “Then they told me he probably would never catch up to his peers, he probably would be nonverbal and that I would have to come up with another way I could communicate with him.
“I never accepted that. As much as I sat there and listened to what they said, in my heart, in my mind, I just would not believe that this little boy that once had a voice, that once was an average child, would grow up and live his life being non-verbal. I never put that into my heart or my mind.
“That put a fire inside of me like, ‘You know what, Raven? What they said might be absolutely correct, but now, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to sit back and just deal with the fact that they’re telling you that Kasen will never talk? Or are you going to do everything you can, in your power, to make sure he knows he has a mom that’s going to always make sure that regardless of what they say, we gon’ give it all we got?’”
At this, Henry notices how much her voice has risen in tone and timbre. She pauses, then says, measuredly, “The true journey started for us right there.”
Henry sought any source of help she could get, from online resources to doctors to specialized therapists, first in Russellville and then in Conway, where she and Kasen moved after the house fire. She says she was delighted with many of the resources she found, others she had to dig out on her own.
“I wasn’t for sure what autism really was. And I’m not ashamed to say that I had absolutely no experience, no education, no proper knowledge. I had nothing,” she says. “I didn’t have a clue what I was dealing with. But that was my life, so I had to try to get it together to try to be all I could be to help him.”
Henry first attacked her own ignorance about the condition. This was largely a solo effort; as she said with a wry grin, any education or treatment plan beyond the initial diagnosis at the clinic, “was sold separately.”
“I had to come up with my own game plan,” Henry says. “So, the first thing that I did was I tried to educate myself. Yeah, we know Kasen has autism, but what is autism? How does it affect him now? How does it affect him in the long run? And what do I need to look for?
“I quickly started realizing education was the best thing I could have ever done. I gained that knowledge — that personal knowledge, that mind knowledge. And then it went from finding out what autism was, to coming up with a plan that fit him, because every child with autism is different.”
Through her own research, Henry learned the specifics of Kasen’s condition and built strategies and routines that addressed general things in a very personalized way. In her son’s case, that meant not only understanding the basics of his Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) but implementing strategies that played to his individual strengths and preferences.
“With SPD, most children on the spectrum do not make eye contact. So, when you’re talking to them — and that’s important — you’re always supposed to talk to them, not at them,” Henry says. “I discovered what we call in our household ‘the Kasen Eye.’ That’s where he’s looking to the left and away from you because he’s following that sound or that rhythm of your voice or the words that you’re saying and then processing what you’re saying.”
Each victory begat another: learning how to communicate informed her on how to approach education or the basic elements of daily living. When the time came, Henry was joined in this effort by the Conway Public School system where, with the help of teachers and a paraprofessional, Kasen enjoyed a relatively seamless transition from home to the classroom. The results have been astonishing.
“Kasen attends Preston and Florence Madison Elementary in Conway, and they have been a godsend,” Henry says. “Coming up in the new school year, he will be in the fourth grade. He’s operating with his peers. He’s in a normal setting. He gets pulled out for some of his resource classes, but he functions in a regular classroom — meaning that he eats lunch with the rest of the children; he does recess with the rest of the kids; he’s in a classroom with the rest of the kids.”
What’s more impressive is Kasen’s verbal skills have returned, something both he and his mother consider a particular point of pride.
“From 18 months to 6 years old, Kasen was nonverbal. He didn’t start regaining his voice until age 6,” she says. “He has grown so much. Everything has changed.”
So it was that one day Kasen asked for some juice and, lacking any in the house, his mother suggested they make some. The latest chapter in this remarkable story was about to be written.
“Kasen can’t have a lot of sugar, so I said, ‘Kasen, I’m going to order us the stuff, and we’re going to try to figure out how to make our own juice,’” she says. “We got in the kitchen, and we started coming up with these different recipes and just sampling things. And that’s how Genius Juice was created.”
Genius Juice joins other merchandise marketed by Henry’s company, Born Genius, launched in 2019. As the juice started to find a national audience online, Henry has dived into the process of developing a wider in-store retail strategy. Through this, she’s got her eye on a prize that will provide hope to other children and families dealing with autism spectrum conditions.
“We’re looking to start the Twisted Puzzle Foundation,” she says. “The dream is to have a community center for kids on the autism spectrum where we’ll have game days; we’ll have speakers come out; we’ll have different people come out to play basketball with the kids. We’ll have summer camps. We’ll have cookouts and different activities to show kids everyday life, but make it fun, make it exciting.
“Mostly, we just want to make something where they can feel at home. In a world where having a disability sometimes is looked down on, everybody wants to feel accepted. I want them to feel accepted.”
Today, nothing looks or feels impossible to Raven Henry, given all she and Kasen have built out of the ashes of his diagnosis. Still, she keeps close the memory of the time before the steps under her feet found their footing; days when faith replaced knowing as the grist to grind out another day.
“God gave Kasen to me for a reason,” she says. “God put a fire on the inside of me that won’t let me quit. I don’t care how many people tell me, ‘No.’ I don’t care how many people tell me, ‘You can’t do it.’ God made me so strong to be able to put that strength into building and creating this place where my child knows that if my mama is helping me, we gon’ make it through. I don’t care what anybody says. We’re gonna make it through.
“Sure, some days I wake, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this today or tomorrow, how about that?’ But I just have to keep pushing, telling myself that it might be raining today, it might be raining tomorrow, too. It might be raining for the whole week! But somewhere, the sunshine is going to come out. So, you gotta keep pushing.”