Children with autism often have difficulty learning the appropriate skills to deal with a society that can frequently be so demanding of others. And for the parents raising such children, simple chores that other people take for granted can suddenly become huge hurdles. But here’s how one family changed everything.
In 2014 eight-year-old Jonny Hickey in Johns Creek, Georgia, was struggling to make friends and still learning simple tasks that other kids figured out intuitively. Thankfully, he had the loving support of his parents, Linda and Grant, and his brother, Christian. After all, Jonny was no ordinary kid.
Indeed, the Hickeys noticed soon after Johnny was born that he was not progressing the same way as other children. Linda admitted that she just “couldn’t understand what was going on” with her little boy.
“We have to teach Jonny everything. Even from how to put on a pair of pants or how to put on shoes. Kids figure it out [but] we have to teach Jonny everything,” Linda explained.
Upon seeking consultation from a doctor, though, the family learned that Jonny was autistic. Among other things, the condition made it hard for him to interact with people, and, as a result, he barely spoke.
But things were about to change for Jonny and the rest of the Hickeys. That’s because not far away in DeKalb County animal services worker Chrissy Kaczynski found a four-month-old pit bull that needed help.
The dog was found in a horrific state and had been left to die without any food or water. “I’ve been doing rescue probably for about 12 years, and I had never seen a dog that young in that sort of condition,” Kaczynski said.
In fact, the pup’s outlook was so grim that the vets said she had just a slim chance of survival. But from the brink of starvation, the little trooper managed to battle the odds.
Thanks to her fighting spirit, then, the dog earned the name “Xena the Warrior Puppy.” Her heartwarming story inspired the shelter to set up a Facebook page where fans could keep an eye out for updates on her condition. And that’s how Jonny’s mom learned of the pup.
Without a doubt, Linda said, she “fell in love” with the adorable dog and found herself checking up on her online almost every day. So when Xena was finally well enough, Linda took Jonny to meet the pup at a fundraising event.
Amazingly, the young pair bonded immediately; it was love at first sight. As a result of this meeting, the Hickeys decided, in March 2013, to adopt Xena.
“She was in his lap and she was kissing him all over his face and he was smiles from ear-to-ear,” Linda said. “We drove home [with] her in his lap the whole way.”
And with Xena by his side, Jonny’s confidence soared. “He is non-stop chatter now,” his thrilled mom told Today. “He is the happiest child that I’ve ever seen him be in eight years.”
“I can just cry thinking about it,” Jonny’s dad, Grant, added. “The dog had such an impact on our son that tens of thousands of dollars didn’t have.”
With greater confidence, Jonny’s skills at doing new tasks improved dramatically. For example, he now loves to cook. Even more, Jonny and Xena have their own non-profit, Spread the Words Foundation, to help raise awareness about autism and the issue of animal cruelty.
Plus, a year after her adoption, Xena received the honor of being named Dog of the Year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Jonny accepted the award and stood proudly on stage in front of hundreds of audience members at the ceremony, next to his hero of course.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Hickleys are now working to turn Xena and Jonny’s story into a movie. “As most of you know, we have been working with a producer in Hollywood to bring the story of Jonny and Xena to the screen. It’s a long process and lots of memories are being discussed, both happy and not so happy,” a post on Xena’s Facebook page revealed in August 2016.
The family have also been busy planning a range of fundraisers for their foundation, including fashion shows and sporting events. In October 2016, for example, the charity will host a three-mile fun run.
And although no one has been able to put their finger on exactly what made the twosome click in the first place, there’s no denying that they’re best of friends. Moreover, Jonny is now passionate about teaching people about the difficulties they’ve both overcome.
The last word, then, should probably go to Jonny himself. He said, “My Xena was hurt really bad by some not-so-nice people. And I have autism. So I think we make a pretty perfect team to spread the words to be nice to animals, and nice to kids like me.”