One little boy with autism was carrying a big secret that was weighing him down. So when he met Santa one Christmas, he decided to share his problem. But, little did he know, the response would leave his mom in tears.
Naomi Johnson lives with her family in Muskegon, Michigan. In December 2015 her son Landon was just six years old. Like most kids his age, the youngster was excited for the upcoming holidays. However, he was worried about something most children wouldn’t even consider.
Landon has autism. The developmental disability can affect people in a number of ways. However, the condition primarily affects the way people perceive situations and how they interact with others.
Even at the tender age of six, Landon was all too aware of his disability and the problems it posed. He was keen to educate himself, but he found that his condition was often misunderstood, particularly at school. According to young Landon, teachers sometimes believed he was misbehaving when he was simply expressing himself.
Consequently, Landon often finds himself in trouble for reasons outside of his control. This was weighing heavily on the young boy’s mind. However, his mom had no idea just how much he worried until one memorable trip to the mall.
Landon had traveled to RiverTown Crossings Mall in Grandville, MI, with his mom, Naomi, Aunt Brittany and four cousins. The aim was to get some pictures of the children with Santa to celebrate the holidays. So they joined the line, and before long the five cousins had an audience with the big man himself.
The visit to Santa was a success, and Landon’s Aunt Brittany was excited to collect the cute prints from the booth. However, as she was doing so, Johnson noticed her son doing something unexpected. Even though they had all finished visiting Santa, Landon had turned and dashed back to him once more.
At first, Johnson was worried about what may have been unfolding. “I turn around and Landon had gone back by Santa,” she explained to ABC News in 2015. “And I was just like, ‘What is he doing?’” However, when she learned what was going down, it brought tears to her eyes.
On the car journey home, Naomi asked Landon what he’d been chatting to Santa about. “I wanted to tell Santa that I had autism,” Landon revealed. “He wanted to know if it bothered me, having autism. I said, ‘Sometimes.’ And Santa said it was OK to be who I was.”
According to Naomi, Landon had also asked Santa if his autism meant that he was on the naughty list. Santa told him that he was a very good boy and shouldn’t worry. As he reassured him, the bearded man held onto the child’s hands to stop him from shaking.
“This stranger in a red suit told my son the same message I’ve been trying to get through to him for a while now — that he’s special and I love him just the way he was made,” Naomi told TODAY in 2015. “Seeing Landon’s face light up in that moment was just incredible. I couldn’t stop crying.”
In fact, Naomi was so moved by her son’s encounter with Santa that she decided to post about it on the mall’s Facebook page. “I had an AMAZING experience with the Santa at the RiverTown Crossings Mall and I want to share my story with you,” she wrote.
She then went on to explain the heartwarming exchange between Santa and Landon and what it meant to her and her little boy. “They sat and chatted for at least five minutes,” Naomi said. “Santa payed close attention and listened to him. This just melts this momma’s heart!”
“My child is a great advocate for himself. But this day was different. He opened up to this person about who he was and he was accepted,” she added. “Mommy tells him all the time that he’s special and I love him the way he was made, but it’s always nice to hear it from others.”
Unsurprisingly, Naomi’s gushing Facebook post captured the hearts of all who saw it. Since she shared her experience in 2015, more than 175,000 people have reacted to it. It has also been shared nearly 60,000 times and attracted 11,000 comments.
“Amazing story,” wrote one user. “Thank you so much for sharing this and God bless Santa for going the extra mile to help this little boy know how special he is.” Meanwhile, another added, “Thank you for sharing your story. There are angels on Earth. Your son may have just met one this Christmas. All the best to you.”
With all the attention Naomi’s post gained, it wasn’t long before reporters came knocking on Santa’s door. However, for him, reassuring Landon was all in a day’s work. “He told me what he wanted for Christmas and I told him I loved him and he was a good boy,” he divulged to ABC News.
According to him, he was simply capturing the spirit of the festive season. “Christmas is about love and joy,” Santa pointed out. “That’s what I try to bring to all the children and the people around me here. It’s an honest pleasure to do that.”
But, although Santa remained modest, Naomi felt differently. “I thought, he did a wonderful job,” she said. “I have had so much positive reaction and people from families with children with autism thanking me sharing their story, giving them hope that they can take their children out and be accepted.”
And, for Landon, it was the best Christmas present he ever could have wished for. “You knew it was going to impact Landon in the most positive way,” his mom explained. “I always tell him he’s unique and special, but when Santa says it to him, it really means something.”
Santa’s poignant message undoubtedly left Landon feeling much more comfortable in his own skin. After all, growing up slightly different from your peers is bound to make you feel a little lonely. And this is a feeling Jonny Hickey from Johns Creek, Georgia, knew all too well. But when his family introduced him to a special friend, the little boy’s life suddenly got a whole lot brighter.
In 2014 eight-year-old Jonny Hickey 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.”