Will Johnson was non-verbal until he was three years old and was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. Later, he was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety disorder. He’s struggled academically and socially all his life but continues to learn more and more every day. He’s now a 19-year-old senior at Anderson High School who loves the zoo…and cheerleading.
“Academically, he’s probably 3 [years old], and he’s learning every day to be more socially appropriate,” says Will’s mom, Kelly Johnson.
But things weren’t looking good a few years ago when Will’s parents noticed a change in their son’s mental health as he battled with his tough coursework and difficulty making and keeping friends as he entered high school.
“About three and a half years ago, we saw a mood shift in William,” said Will’s father, Steve Johnson. “We tried different things, different sports, different activities, and nothing was working. My smiley loving son was leaving us, and we couldn’t figure it out.”
The family was at a loss until will met Kaylee Knoernschild, a cheerleader who was volunteering at Open Doors Tennessee, the organization Mr. Johnson created in 2005 to give children with disabilities the connections and help they need to thrive in their environment.
Kaylee and Will hit it off, and Kaylee invited her new friend to come to one of her cheer practices. Will soon realized he loved the excitement and decided to join the team as a cheerleader himself.
“It’s life-changing,” said Mrs. Johnson. “He is the ultimate Anderson County High School cheerleader. He cheers for everything, sometimes the opposing team.”
Will now spends much of his time with his teammates from the cheer squad, both on and off the field. Unlike previous years, he has friends calling him to hang out or go places, which has relieved much of his loneliness and is good social skills practice.
“I feel really proud, happy…seeing him down there, happy, not in sync, not doing any of the things the girls are doing but they couldn’t care less. It’s awesome! I’m a proud cheer mom!” joked Mr. Johnson.
Will has also made an impact on the lives of many of the cheerleaders on his team. He’s taught them all things about acceptance and true friendship and joy, the kind of lessons you can’t learn in a classroom.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said fellow cheerleader Whitley Anderson. “It’s incredible like how he makes you feel.”
Check out the video below to see Will shine on the field, even if he’s not doing his cheerleading exactly the “right” way.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?