George Yionoulis was just beginning fourth grade at a public school in Raleigh, N.C., when his parents sat down with his teacher to talk about goals for the year ahead.
In past years, George’s classmates sometimes hadn’t understood him because he acted differently, taking words too literally or becoming overly frustrated by small things.
His teacher wondered if George might want to make a presentation to the class to explain his autism, a neurological condition characterized by challenges with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and other areas.
“We were like, ‘Oooooh, a video,’ ” said his mother, Lisa Jolley, adding that he adores making videos and music.
The result is a captivating, charming, true-life explainer of what it’s like for a 9-year-old to live with autism. While it was made for George’s class, it’s been watched tens of thousands of times since it was posted on YouTube in late November, and has made him a bit of an Internet star.
“I believe it’s pretty awesome,” George said in an interview. “It makes me feel so, so encouraged. I’ve been dreaming about this thing my whole life.”
Jolley also posted George’s video on Facebook, and it has been shared broadly online, eliciting many supportive comments.
In the video, George talks about how he loves Harry Potter, Minecraft and tacos. And how his DJ name is Geo Yio and that he’ll bust out a dance move any time, any place. Then he mixes some techno beats and announces: “And…wait for it…I have this thing called autism.”
He talks about why it’s hard for him at times to focus on a conversation, a lesson in class or sometimes a game he’s playing. It’s often hard to stand still in line.
“I can hear and see a lot of things and sounds all at the same time,” he says in the video, “which sometimes makes it hard to focus on one sound or thought.”
His mother said that he has gone to the same school since kindergarten and has friends in his grade. Some of the girls dote on him, she said, reminding him to get in line at the right time or to grab his lunch. But George has a big personality, she said, and it’s been harder to connect with the boys.
While Jolley said she has always found the school to be inclusive, kids tend to be afraid of things that are different or they don’t understand.
“As he gets older, his peers get older, and they notice more things and are more quick to judge or laugh,” she said. “They could think, ‘He’s different, I will go away, I will avoid him.’ We wanted to head that off at the pass.”
“We worked on the video for a few weeks,” Jolley explained. “We used footage from years ago and a few weeks ago. We wanted to show how far George has come.”
George was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and didn’t talk until he was almost 3. Steps such as talking, getting dressed on his own and learning how to stay on task were big celebrations.
“Something a typical person inherently knows how to do, he learns how to do,” Yionoulis said. “We don’t take anything for granted.”
With help from parents, George wrote the video’s script, describing some of the challenges of living with autism such as difficulty with eye contact and trouble interpreting some language.
“I also tend to take what people say literally. That means if you say ‘take a seat,’ you might find one less chair in your classroom,” George jokes in the video.
George presented the video to his class in early October and took questions from his classmates afterward.
“One of the kids asked him, ‘So you’re saying even if you’re playing by yourself, you’d be okay if we asked you to play?’ ” his father recalled. Another classmate liked that George in the video invites kids to come up and ask him anything about his autism or his life. “No, seriously, it’s OK, just come ask me about it,” he tells them.
George’s mother said making the video allowed him to communicate exactly what he wanted to say, in the way he wanted to say it.
“He can get all his words in one place and say what he wants to say,” Jolley said. “If he were to have to say all this stuff without the video, I’m not sure he’d be able to get it all out. It’s a perfect medium for him.”
Reporter Allison Klein contributed to this report.