In so many ways, nine-year-old George Yionoulis is like other boys his age. He likes Harry Potter, and watching cartoons. He has a creative side, whether it’s drawing pictures by hand or making music or writing code. He’s into dancing – usually with his whole body, at a moment’s notice.
“He has to dance,” George’s mother Lisa Jolley says about her son. With a laugh, she remembers a time when he stopped to jam out with a group of buskers on the New York subway. Despite his enthusiastic dance moves, nobody took notice – “very New York” her mom recalls with a laugh.
George was also born with autism.
But after a video made by George and his family exploded into viral fame, millions of people around the world are learning not just that last fact but everything about his personality – the dancing, the music, the Harry Potter – and more, including the challenges he faces in his everyday life.
Titled My Autism, the video features George as narrator, guiding the viewer through a look at his hobbies and his personality, through the lens of his autism.
It was intended to help his classmates better understand his condition.
“This video was made for an audience of 21 fourth graders,” Jolley tells Global News from her home in Raleigh, N.C. “This was to show his class and his teacher…that he does know, he’s very aware, he does know he has [autism].”
The video soon found a much wider audience than those 21 fourth graders after it was first posted on Nov. 27. As of now the video has amassed nearly 25,000 views on YouTube. It’s also garnered attention from advocacy groups, media outlets, and even Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“It’s very cool, just to be transparent about it,” Jolley said. “[To say] ‘I’ve got this thing. It’s just a part of who I am. And it might be the reason I dance, who knows?’”
For the first couple years of his life, George’s parents Lisa and Mike were not aware their son had autism. Their first indication that something was different about their son came when his speech seemed to be delayed.
At two years old, George’s parents took him to a speech therapist. That’s when they got the news.
“’Have you thought of autism?’” Jolley remembers hearing for the first time. “It was a blow to the gut. It was just completely out of left field.”
The news changed the way they thought about their son – and how he sees the world.
“We the parents, we only think big picture. ‘Is he going to graduate school? Is he going to get married? Is he going to have kids? Is he going to live on his own?’ Big picture,” Jolley said. “And what I’ve learned is [kids with autism] only see small picture…it changes you.”
In the video, George tries to explain certain aspects of his personality and why he behaves the way he does. For instance, George warns against using metaphors like “take a seat” or “it’s raining cats and dogs” because he’s liable to take it literally.
He also explains how difficult it is to filter out sensory input, like lots of noises in a crowded room, or that it’s difficult to make and keep eye contact.
“Like a lot of other kids with autism, I may not have been looking [at you] but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening,” George explains.
The video doesn’t shy away from some of the negative consequences of his autism, like the fact that he can become overwhelmed easily, or become easily frustrated by a mistake, or quick to anger when he feels ignored.
Portraying that balance was important for Jolley, who wanted to help her son make friends in his class but also didn’t want to shy away from the truth about his autism.
“When it’s bad, it’s bad,” Jolley said. “Make no mistake.”
While the feedback on the video has been for the most part “overwhelmingly positive” according to Jolley, they have received some negative feedback as well.
“A lot of people focus on the physical, which is crazy,” Jolley said. “[Comments like] ‘Poor kid, his autistic and those teeth.’ Like dude, he’s nine! He still has so many baby teeth! Plus I love his teeth. There’s an emoji which looks just like him!”
But perhaps the most touching part of the video comes from George’s direct appeal to his classmates. In this moment, with locks of black hair falling across his bespectacled face, George echoes so many children who have ever felt outcast, misfit, misunderstood – alone.
“I like having fun, just like you. So if you ever see me playing by myself, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to play with you, too.” George says.
“Don’t be afraid to come ask me about it. No seriously, it’s ok, just come ask me about it.”