A Journey through Autism, Abuse, and Friendship: A Fresh Path with Jonny and Xena

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Jonny Hickey and Xena

When Jonny Hickey was only one year old, it became apparent that something wasn't quite right. His father and mother, Grant and Linda Hickey of Johns Creek, Georgia, realized he wasn't hitting his developmental milestones, and it was recommended that Jonny be tested. Linda says, "I remember when Jonny was being diagnosed years ago. We were going to doctor after doctor--it was truly overwhelming.  I could barely breathe."

The Hickeys were being forced into an entirely new reality as a family as they sought to find help for their son. "We were so incredibly private, though it seems silly to say that now.  I was a mom that couldn't even say the word Autism...I chose the words 'Special Needs.'  I felt, for some reason, that being special needs seemed like a temporary condition that, at the time, I could accept.  It was extremely tough for my family when Jonny was being diagnosed.  Twelve years ago things were a lot different in regards to the public's awareness of autism, and I felt lost and alone with an entire family in denial."

Help came for Jonny and his family from a very unexpected source. In September of 2012, Linda was watching the news when a story appeared about a horribly abused pitbull mix puppy that had been brought to Dekalb County Animal Services. The puppy's condition was so dire that they only gave the puppy a 1% chance of survival. The story captured Linda, and she became invested in following the puppy's battle for survival. For weeks, Linda kept up with the puppy, who was named Xena, as she slowly improved. Below are pictures of Xena in her early days.

Against all odds, Xena improved to the point that she could be placed for adoption. The founder of a local animal adoption program contacted the Hickeys to set up a trial visit for Xena. The day of the trial visit, Linda took Xena and one of the family's other dogs to pick Jonny up from school as a surprise. The chemistry was immediate!

"Xena began licking Jonny's face, and he was grinning from ear to ear." When they all got home, Jonny showed a miraculous connection with the dog, interacting with her in a way the family had never seen. "I had my moment when Jonny was interacting with Xena in our family room. I just stood back and I just knew. You know, we've spent thousands of dollars on therapy, but I knew that the best therapy was standing on four legs in my family room."

The Hickeys say that the adoption of the puppy not only opened up a world for our son, but also saved his parents and family. The changes in Jonny's behavior were so dramatic that he started talking and went from fear and aggression towards strangers to being welcoming. He took responsibility for feeding the dog and even was "Superstar of the Week" at his school--that had never happened!

As the story of the boy and his puppy spread literally all around the world, Xena naturally fell into her role as a therapy dog and was even named the ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) 2013 Dog of the Year. In a video, Jonny said of himself and Xena, "I think we make a pretty perfect team to spread the words to be nice to animals and nice to kids like me, too."

Here are some photos of Linda signing Xena's adoption papers, Xena's official ASPCA Dog of the Year photo shoot, and another picture of a Xena.

That phrase, "Spread the Words," became the name of the nonprofit organization founded by the Hickeys, Jonny and Xena's Spread the Words Foundation. Linda went from not being able to say the word "autism" to being an advocate for those who were going through a similar journey. "I felt that we were given this amazing platform to spread awareness for Autism, the Special Needs Community and Animals in need. I knew we were more than cute pictures of a boy with Autism and rescue dogs. We have been so incredibly blessed that I felt we had to give back to the community. I remember saying way back then that, when I was on the other side of this and was able, I would give back to the families who were on the same path as we are."

The Hickeys understand the depth of pain that families feel that experience autism. "Years ago when we were going from doctor to doctor, it was truly the darkest times in our lives," Linda says.  "For us, it was not an easy diagnosis. There are no blood tests to determine if your child has autism, so it's endless evaluations, hearing tests, MRI's.  It's all way too much to bear. It was extremely heartbreaking and overwhelming."

It was through those experiences that the Hickeys were led to begin the foundation. "I promised that I would help the families and the individuals who are walking in our shoes.  And because our adopted pit bull has been the miracle for our family, we of course, had to help animals in need as well.  That is our biggest victory....helping others and giving back to the community.  

Since its founding the organization has touched many lives through its efforts in its target areas. "I think the organization has brought together the kindest, most compassionate people on this planet.  I have a platform, but it would be nothing without all these amazing 'family members.'  It's all of us collectively that  come together to make a difference. Everyone in this world can do something...whether it's a share on Facebook to 'spread the words' or a donation, volunteering or fostering. We can all do something, and, together, we are making a difference."

An annual 5k and fun run is held to raise money for the foundation. This year's, and past year's runs, are sponsored by Atlanta radio station 104.7, the Fish, Kroger, and Geico. The event draws participants from all 50 states and even from other parts of the world! "So not only do we bring hearts from our community together, we bring hearts from all around the world together for our Special Needs Community and Animals in Need."

Jonny, dad, Grant Hickey, participating in the 5K

The money raised goes to support the special needs community. "All the money we raise at the 5k is used throughout the year to empower our special needs community by shining a bright light on them at our Fashion Show and our Special Needs Prom."

At this special prom, the girls and guys are treated like royalty. Free gowns are provided by Cinderella's Gowns. There are also free tuxedos, hair styling, and make up as well as free jewelry, and a red carpet.  In fact, Lavender Hair Salon of Johns Creek shuts the doors of their business just to work with these special ladies and gentlemen. A sit-down dinner is served, a DJ cranks up the music, and there's even a balloon drop. All of this takes place at the Country Club of the South in Johns Creek.  Says Linda, "It was very important to me that our special needs community be given a prom just like the typical kids; they deserve it too.   We have had video messages sent and played at prom from Shaq, Kristen Chenoweth, and Carol Burnett.  Although this is not a city event, each year the Mayor of Johns Creek, along with city council, come and walk around and meet all our guests.  Our community loves this event and they really do embrace our special needs community."

Helping the special needs community, however, is just part of what the 5k accomplishes. "We invite all local animal rescues to bring their homeless dogs and cats to the event  and our foundation pays for all adoption fees that start/take place at our 5k/festival in October at Suwanee Town Center.  Our 5k is dog friendly, but if you don't have a dog, come on out and adopt your new best friend for FREE (with an approved application)."

Jonny and friends welcoming the "virtual runners" to the 5k

The Hickeys have taken the message to heart of "adopt don't shop" when it comes to getting a new pet. They now have six adopted puppies that have come from horrific situations. Linda shares pictures of her dogs through social media to help others understand how pet adoption benefits everyone.  "My goal through sharing uplifting and inspiring photos of our dogs living their best lives is to shine a light on shelter and rescue animals.  Some perceive Rescues animals and Shelter dogs as second class citizens.  The reality is that, at no fault of their own, they ended up in a shelter.  These animals want what every animal wants...to be part of a family, to be loved and to love.  Rescues know they have been saved and are by far the most grateful and show you that every single day.  Across America, 1.5 five million shelter animals are euthanized every year, and if I can save just one by promoting 'adopt don't shop' and influence someone to make the decision to pass by the pet store and head to the shelter..  well, I feel I have made a tiny difference in this enormous crisis in our country. I feel that if people see that my pups, who were horrifically abused, can make it, then all shelter and rescue pups deserve to find a family and love as well."

In addition to the 5k and prom the foundation also has a fashion show featuring models from the special needs community. "Our Fashion Show, 'Fashion Speaks on the Creek,'  is hands down the best show of the year.  Belk provides all the clothes.  Our Special Needs Models are given a stylist who pulls clothes specifically for them.  They go to fittings at Belk and are styled from head to toe.  On show day, they are taken back stage where they get dressed and their hair and make up are provided, and then they hit the runway.  Karyn Greer, our Atlanta news anchor, introduces them and that's when the magic happens.  They are escorted by our Johns Creek Police Department and Star Wars personalities, but it is all eyes on the models as they shine on the runway."

 Another outreach of the foundation is its "Become the Pawsability" educational programs. Through telling the miraculous story of Jonny & Xena, Linda teaches students about Autism from a mom's perspective. She explains, "I make it understandable and less confusing. We can talk about anything without worry of offending or worry about using correct terminology because this is a no judgement zone.  I teach strategies on how a typical person can form relationships with someone that may be a little different than them.  We also talk about kindness that everyone should show towards people and animals.  And, because there's a dog in the school, it brings a level of interest and excitement to the program."

In the future, Linda Hickey hopes that the foundation can continue to meet needs both for those experiencing autism and for animals in need as the family has seen first hand the power of the partnership between people with special needs and animals. "I hope to be able to continue what we are doing, but my dream is to bring a farm with rescue animals, a 'Rescue Ranch' to Johns Creek. We would rescue and rehabilitate animals there, and it would be a ranch where special needs individuals can learn to run the farm, care for animals, garden, and work for one of the onsite industries that help support the farm. Our special needs individuals will be offered meaningful work. This will give them self worth and confidence, which fosters social interaction."

This entire journey has certainly been a fresh path for the Hickeys that has led them to truly impact those around them, and they feel that helping others is something everyone should seek to do. "Deciding to make your mark on the world in a positive way is the best medicine for the soul. One of the best ways to find happiness, fulfillment and a sense of purpose is to try to help improve the lives of others. Our 'family' from all around the world come together to do just this.  I feel that sharing positive messages throughout the world inspires others to do just the same; we are a reflection of each other, and it creates a ripple effect within our communities, making the world a better place."

Want to know more about Jonny and Xena? Check out the foundation on Facebook and at the website, Xenathewarriorpuppy.com.  

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