'We all started crying': Boy with autism gets best birthday surprise

Dylan Johnson, then and now at 14, has always loved vacuum cleaners.
Dylan Johnson, then and now at 14, has always loved vacuum cleaners. Courtesy of Jodie Greene

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By Eun Kyung Kim

Dylan Johnson has been fascinated with vacuum cleaners ever since he was two years old, around the same time he was diagnosed with autism.

“It’s been something he’s been really passionate about for most of his life. I don’t really remember him not liking vacuums,” his mom, Jodie Greene, told TODAY.com on Tuesday. “He doesn’t have an interest in anything else. He’s never really played with cars or robots. He’s never been into movies. It makes it hard to give him a gift for Christmas or birthdays that he really enjoys.”

But this year was different.

Dylan Johnson has been "obsessed" with vacuum cleaners since he was 2, says his mother.Today

For Dylan’s 14th birthday, the Virginia teen got the ultimate present: a vacuum-themed celebration, complete with a vacuum-shaped cake and an in-house product demonstration from one of his favorite vacuum brands, Kirby. 

Greene, 37, came up with the idea initially while joking with her husband one night. She knew from past experience that Sponge Bob or other youth-related birthday themes wouldn't work with Dylan.

“I was kind of joking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we got Dylan a vacuum demonstration done? Instead of having a magician or a clown at a party, we have a vacuum demo. That would be awesome!'” she said.

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Dylan with Kirby salesman, Al Archie, and another company employee at his vacuum-themed birthday party.Today

Her husband liked the idea and encouraged her to explore it, so Greene sent an email to the Ohio-based Kirby Company. She acknowledged she had “an unusual request” for her son, who “spends hours every day watching videos on his tablet about different Kirby’s. When he isn’t watching videos about them, he is talking about them." She made it clear she did not plan to buy anything, but was willing to pay a fee for a presentation.

“I do not want anything free, but as the mother of a special needs child, it is so hard to find things to make my son happy," Greene said in her email. "I know that having this demo done would just be so awesome, and it would warm my heart to see him so excited to experience that.” 

To her surprise, the company responded and over a two-week period, hammered out details to send a salesman, as well as a small birthday package: a t-shirt, hat and soccer ball with the Kirby logo.

Dylan practices shampooing the rug with a new Kirby vacuum.Today

Al Archie, a 25-year sales veteran with the company, arrived last Saturday at Dylan's home, where his birthday was being celebrated with grandparents and other family members and friends. He spent the next 30-45 minutes showing the young teen various attachments of a brand new vacuum cleaner and how the machine worked. Greene described Archie, who volunteered his time and services, as extremely patient. 

"Right after they finished shampooing, he said, ‘This is your vacuum, you get to keep it,'" she said. “We all just started crying. We had no idea that that was going to happen.”

In a statement provided to TODAY.com, Kirby spokeswoman Halle Sminchak said the company was “honored to be part of this story" and appreciated Greene reaching out. 

The company also expressed pride in Archie, its distributor, who paid for the new vacuum cleaner himself. 

"We are proud of Mr. Archie for going above and beyond to represent the values for which The Kirby Company stands," the company said. "Our most heartfelt thanks to Dylan for being our number one fan.”

Dylan and his birthday giftToday

Dylan’s mom said the experience exceeded her expectations. 

“For the first time, I’ve seen Dylan truly happy,” she said, explaining how difficult it has been to please a child with very limited interests. "He’s not interested in relationships. He's not interested in liking girls or movies, video games — nothing. It makes it really hard to find something he can be passionate about. The one thing he’s passionate about is vacuums."

Dylan's new gift sits in his bedroom, on a caddy that contains all of the attachments.

"It's kind of an odd quirky thing to be interested in, but that's what he likes," Greene said. "Some kids have pictures of whatever (in their rooms), Dylan has vacuums."

Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.