COVID loneliness leads to unexpected friendship for two boys with autism

It took two years and a handwritten letter, but the unexpected friendship between Jonny Hickey and Jun Hayakawa is official. This is the first friendship ever for both 16-year-old boys.

Jonny and Jun met nearly three years ago in a 7th grade special-needs classroom at Autrey Mill Middle School. Both boys have autism.

“Jonny really struggled with allowing anyone into his space or world,” said Erin Villaume, the boys’ special education teacher from middle school. “He didn’t have an interest in friends besides Albert, the bearded dragon that another teacher brought into school. Jonny loved Albert so much that he was incorporated into Jonny’s behavioral plan. He could feed him or care for him after, for example, he finished his language arts assignment. Jun tried to approach Jonny through Albert, asking if he could pet him, or by asking Jonny questions about Albert, but Jonny kept Jun at arms’ length.”

This is how their relationship remained through middle school. They were just classmates, not friends.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Jun felt lonely. The boys started the 9th grade at Johns Creek High School virtually in August and did not attend in person full-time until October. They have had occasional virtual learning days since then.

“It has been a hard time and I miss seeing everyone when I’m not at school,” said Jun. “I knew Jonny didn’t have any friends and I didn’t either. I felt like he needed one. I also knew that he has autism, just like me. We’re different, but we’re the same. I decided to send his parents a letter to see if Jonny could be my friend.”

Jun sent the letter through Jonny’s school paraprofessional in January.

“It was a four-page, handwritten letter on lined paper,” said Linda Hickey, of Johns Creek. “It included his phone number, it said that he would like to be Jonny’s friend, he’d love to volunteer for Jonny’s nonprofit, Jonny & Xena Spread the Word Foundation, when it’s safe, and he asked if it would be OK if he called us.”

Linda, touched and so excited, reached out to Jun immediately. She learned that he volunteers at the Go with It Farm in Alpharetta. Jonny is a big animal lover, too, so Linda spoke with her son and they made a plan to visit Jun during his lunch break on a Sunday.

“We kept it casual, easy, and there were no expectations on Jonny,” said Linda. “The farm was the perfect place for the boys to connect over their shared love of animals. It went so well.”

Since then, Jonny has continued visiting Jun at the farm and the Hickeys have purchased annual passes to the Georgia Aquarium for Jonny and Jun. They have made multiple visits already, with the boys riding side by side in the back of the Hickey’s van, which is a wonder in itself.

“When I saw the picture of them sitting in the backseat together, my jaw dropped,” said Villaume. “For Jonny to sit that close to someone at all is huge. He trusts Jun and it’s so awesome. It makes tears stream down my face.”

Jonny is completely comfortable with Jun in his space, so much so that the boys created their own handshake, dubbed the “not alone handshake.” During a recent trip to the Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Jonny was struggling with his headset and allowed Jun to help him.

“The headset helps Jonny block out sensory distractions,” said Linda. “The headset broke and he needed to use earbuds with a wire. He could not figure them out, so Jun showed him how and put the earbuds in for him. I took a picture, and, to most, the picture wouldn’t be anything special, but for me, it’s everything.”

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

Jun’s mother agrees that the friendship between the boys is special.

“I’ve seen changes in Jun since he and Jonny have become friends,” said Kaori Hayakawa. “He’s learning how to relate to others beyond his teachers and family. He loves to help people and helping Jonny and being his friend is making him so happy. He was bullied in the sixth grade and he doesn’t trust others easily because of that. But he trusts Jonny.”

When asked how he learned to be such a good friend, Jun refers to YouTube personality, Dhar Mann.

“He has a quote that says, ‘the kindness you put out into the world always has a way to come back to you,’” said Jun. “I try to be kind to everyone, especially Jonny. It feels quite special to be his friend. Things that others can’t do with him, I can and that makes me feel special. Jonny has a lot of shine to him and makes my life brighter.”

One or both of Jonny’s parents are always with the boys during their outings, as Jonny needs adult supervision. Jonny’s parents have grown so fond of Jun and are thankful for this surprise friendship.

“I honestly never thought it would happen,” said Linda. “As a parent, you always want your child to have friends and, as a special-needs parent, you want your child to have as many opportunities as possible. Friendship doesn’t always come easy when you have autism. I’m so grateful that Jonny has a friend. Jun is the most compassionate, patient, kind ninth grader I’ve ever known. Jonny doesn’t think or learn the same as we do, he’s different and it takes people time to figure him out, but Jun just knows. He knows him so incredibly well, how he thinks, what upsets him, what he likes. I’m amazed and grateful. If anything great came out of COVID, it’s that Jonny has a friend.”

Though Jonny can be chatty about topics he loves, like geese, fish, and dogs, and he can always get the important details out, conversations can be tough, especially when it comes to expressing feelings. When asked to name the best part of having Jun as his friend, Jonny did not struggle much to find the words.

“I never had a friend before,” said Jonny. “I like to do things with him, and I love it.” However, before he even spoke, the smile on his freckled face and the hand across his heart conveyed exactly how he feels about Jun, his very first friend.


Watch the special “Not Alone” handshake between the guys.

Jonny Hickey has a special connection to the animals around his neighborhood pond. He names them and talks to them during his daily visits and has mastered a call to gather his geese friends.