Isaac Ralston has autism, but that is not what Abbi Hood and Ashton Wills see when they look at him. They see their friend, who is funny, a great juggler, likes to swim, likes comic books, and loves YouTube videos.
“They see Isaac as Isaac, instead of Isaac with autism,” said Kathy Ralston, Isaac’s mother.
The three Creston Community High School seniors met in fifth grade, where their teacher Corina Hoepker asked Hood and Wills to take a special interest in Isaac.
Wills said it was not much of an adjustment for him to become friends with Isaac. He had helped other students with disabilities, so Isaac’s behavior was not that unusual to him. The first time he saw Isaac at the swimming pool, Isaac was singing “Sherry Baby,” and Wills remembers thinking, “I like this kid.”
“Some of the things were (different), I guess I just knew how to handle it,” Wills said.
Hood remembers a time early in their friendship when she realized that Isaac was different. He had cut his finger while the three friends were playing at a neighbor’s house and ran home crying and screaming. This seemed like an overreaction, Hood said, and it scared her and Wills.
“We didn’t know what was really going on,” Hood said. “We asked, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong?’”
They followed Isaac back to his home, where Kathy explained to them that Isaac sees the world differently than others do.
“I remember Kathy ... explaining how he was reacting to things because it could be ... a very small thing but he could react to it bigger,” Hood said. “That was the one thing I really remember.”
Kathy said she continued to explain Isaac’s diagnosis and behaviors to the friends in age appropriate ways as they grew up.
Often, she said, when Wills and Hood came over to the house to play, Isaac would play games or hang out with them for about an hour and then disappear to another part of the house. At first, Wills and Hood went home when this happened. Eventually, they started staying around instead, playing with Isaac’s siblings. When he was ready, Isaac would rejoin the group.
This became normal to Hood and Wills; they accepted Isaac’s behavior as a part of Isaac.
Kathy said she is grateful to Hood and Wills for their friendship with Isaac. He had never had a real friend before he met them. He had been bullied at his previous school and this was a big concern for Kathy as the family moved to Creston and Isaac started a new school.
When Isaac started coming home from school talking about “Abbi and Ashton,” she was worried at first that this might not be a real friendship and someone was picking on her son.
However, as soon as she met them, those fears were relieved.
“This was an unbelievable kid who was really genuine and an awesome friend,” she said, speaking of Wills.
She said Hood and Wills became a part of the family, coming over for Friday night pizza and performing clown shows in the living room. Wills has even traveled with them.
“They were so natural with Isaac,” Kathy said, “He’s comfortable with them. He doesn’t need to be attention seeking.”
Isaac, Hood and Wills have common expectations for their senior year. They said they are looking forward to graduation but also trying to hold on to the memories they will make this year.
Hood spoke of all of the “last firsts” that are happening.
“It’s my last first for everything, like next Tuesday is my last first game for volleyball,” Hood said. “ I don’t want it to end so quickly because I know this is the year where it zips ... Everything is ending.”
But it is not over yet.
As they enter their senior year of high school, the three friends will be busy with activities. Although they do not have any classes with Isaac this year, Wills and Hood said they will keep up with Isaac through their extracurricular activities and by just hanging out together.
All three are involved in student government this year. Hood is the student body president, Wills is the senior class president, and Isaac is on the student council.
Hood is a member of the track team, and Isaac is planning to go out for track as well. The boys and girls teams are separate, but they often practice together.
“I’m very excited for track with Abbi,” Isaac said, “and seeing her all day.”
Wills will be busy with National Honor Society, Appalachian Service Project, Future Business Leaders of America and more, but he is not worried about losing track of his friendship with Isaac. He said they will continue to hang out at Isaac’s house, go out to eat and watch movies together.
Hood plays volleyball and runs track and is involved with speech, drama and choir. She is also in NHS and FBLA. She will keep in contact with Isaac by taking him to buy comic books and dropping by his house. Isaac and Hood are planning to go to homecoming together. She said no matter what, every single time Isaac sees her he tells her she looks gorgeous.
Both Hood and Wills frequently talk to and text Isaac on the phone. Wills said Isaac often texts them at midnight or 6 a.m.
Isaac said he likes to call and text to see how their day is going and tell them about his day, as well as make plans together. He also often sends them emojis just to check in.