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Family re-creates Blockbuster for son with autism after local store closes

by Courtney Gisriel / / Source: TODAY

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For most of the country, Blockbuster is a blast from the past, but for the Zuniga family, the video chain had been an important part of their routine for close to a decade.

Hector and Rosa Zuniga visited the local Blockbuster in Mission, Texas, at least once a week with their oldest son, Hector Andres. The 20-year-old has a nonverbal form of autism, and the only words he didn't lose when signs of the disorder started surfacing were "Mickey" and "Barney."

"He identified Blockbuster with Barney because that’s where he would go get Barney," Hector Zuniga told TODAY. "So every single time we passed in front of the store he would point at it and say, 'Barney, Barney.' That was his way of saying that he wanted to go to Blockbuster."

Family re-creates Blockbuster store for autistic son
The Zuniga Family (clockwise from top left: Hector, Rosa, Hector Andres and Javier Zuniga)Hector Zuniga

For the last seven years, the family would visit the store, stop by the younger Hector's favorite section for a few movies and some snacks, and make their way back home. "He liked going there. It was kind of his thing," Zuniga said.

The employees at the store knew the family well, and understood how important the routine was for Hector, so when they heard they would be closing in April, they pulled Rosa Zuniga aside to let her know the bad news.

RELATED: Things I wish I'd known about having a child with autism

"My wife was very, very upset because we knew that ... this is one of the few things that Hector really, really liked," Zuniga explained.

Knowing their son doesn't handle change well, they came up with a plan. They decided if the Blockbuster in town was closing, they'd simply have to open a new one in their own home. As soon as the store started selling off their stock, they were the first people there to snatch up all of his favorite movies; they even bought one of the store's empty racks.

Family re-creates blockbuster for autistic son
The Zuniga brothers celebrate Hector Andres' 20th birthdayRosa Andres

They bought all their son's favorite titles, and ended up buying around 60 DVDs altogether. "I mean, we could have gone and bought any rack and just written down the titles and bought them on Amazon," Zuniga said. "But we wanted the Blockbuster boxes. We wanted him to put the Blockbuster box in the back, and the original cover for the DVD in the front, just like they had them in the store."

The Blockbuster employees were happy to help the family with the re-creation. They even helped disassemble the rack and load it into Rosa's car. "The employees of the store went way, way, way beyond the call of duty," Zuniga said. "I can't say enough good things about them."

Family re-creates blockbuster for autistic son
Hector Andres enjoys some time with a friendly horse.Hector Zuniga

This past Sunday, when Blockbuster was set to close its doors, the Zuniga family made one last stop to the video store. "We honestly were expecting the worst," the father told TODAY. "He's a sweetheart of a boy ... but he has his bad moments. I guess we all do."

After walking through the nearly empty store, Hector grabbed his dad's forearm to show he was upset.

RELATED: The problem isn't autism: What my son and the Obamas taught me about fatherhood

Zuniga and his wife explained to their son that these things happen, and that they had a surprise for him back at home. After a few minutes, Hector calmed down and even ended up finding a few more of his favorite movies stashed away. They said their goodbyes at the store and went home.

Zuniga and his younger son, Javier, 19, spent the rest of the afternoon putting together the shelves, arranging the DVDs (as close to the order from the store as possible) and placing the store's old Blockbuster signs right at the top.

Family re-creates blockbuster for autistic son
The Zunigas' Blockbuster replicaHector Zuniga

When they were ready for the big reveal, Zuniga covered Hector's eyes with his hands, walked him into the room and uncovered the surprise.

"At first you could see his eyes getting bigger and bigger," Zuniga said. "He was pointing at it almost as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing."

Family re-creates Blockbuster store for son with autism
Hector Zuniga covered his son's eyes just before the big reveal.Javier Zuniga

The moment was very emotional for Hector and the whole family. "You could see his eyes — the corners of his eyes were starting to tear up," Zuniga said. "My wife, by then, had lost it ... She was crying buckets, and I honestly wasn't that far off."

Family re-creates Blockbuster store for son with autism
Hector Andres clapped after seeing what his family had built.Javier Zuniga

Javier Zuniga captured the tender moment in a series of photographs. He posted them to Twitter, where they've since been liked more than 127,000 times. The family has been blown away by the response they've gotten. "Honestly, we were totally flabbergasted," Hector Zuniga said. "We didn't expect this."

As for the parents, they're just pleased to be able to do this for their son. "We were happy that he was happy," said Zuniga.

"We felt that he was going to be OK and we put that in the 'win' column," he said. "Because with autism, well, every once in a while you get to win one ... this was one of those."

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