How The Grateful Dead Provided Inclusion for Joey Hicks, a Nonspeaking Autistic Adult

Joey Hicks

By Ron Sandison

I felt a sense of nostalgia watching the video of Joey Hicks, a thirty-year-old, nonspeaking adult with autism, soothing to the music of the Grateful Dead at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington.

In the TikTok video that went viral, Joey is rocking-back-and-forth absorbed in the music by the combination of the people and the energy of the string instruments. TikTok Link here.

Watching the TikTok video took me back to when I was sixteen and on a hot July Michigan day, I saw the Grateful Dead in concert. The music had a soothing effect on my autistic sensory issues and the bright tie dye shirts of dancing Dead Bears and the sight of Volkswagen vans produced a calming sensation.

At the conclusion of the concert, I experienced inclusion as the Deadheads and audience clapped and cheered together for a final song. Jerry Garcia and his band responded by performing for an encore Truckin’ and I Fought the Law.

Many people with autism have a talent for music and signing. Music has a transforming and peaceful effect on individuals with autism and creates an atmosphere of inclusion. Betsy Hicks Russ, Joey’s mom discovered this after her fiancée Ron Russ, a Deadhead, introduced her son to the Grateful Dead’s music.

The day of the Grateful Dead’s final tour, unable to find a caregiver for Joey, the Russ’ choose to bring him to the show. Betsy shares, “We decided to “risk” a meltdown and bring him with us. The scenario was ripe for chaos, but instead something miraculous happened. Much to our shock, it transformed Joey and he rocked and squealed with joy for three hours.” After the concert, Betsy noticed that Joey’s meltdowns decreased by about 70 percent.

The Grateful Dead concert was a breakthrough moment, Joey felt loved by the audience and a connection with the music. The Deadheads embraced him with high fives and fist bumps. From an early age, Joey experienced many challenges and as a child raised in Wisconsin he found comfort with nature and music.

Joey was diagnosed with autism at age two. Sensory issues causes him to experience meltdowns and he was able adjust to his environment with stims of rocking-back-and-forth or flapping his hands. Sometimes, sensory issues are overwhelming, and this causes Joey to scream and make load noises in public. Betsy shares, “When a child displays disruptive behavior people show compassion for the parents but when a grow man is screaming it makes people afraid and they give you that look.”

Betsy created the Be Kind Autism Vest to help people understand autism and not be afraid of autistic meltdowns and usually behaviors. Joey loves wearing his Be Kind Autism Vest, when he wears the vest people are kinder to him and accepting of his difficulty with following social norms.

Betsy explains, “Most people understand that you cannot yell in public and common rules of curtesy for riding a bike, these are unwritten social rules of society. Joey never signed the social contract so he sometimes yells or rides his bike on the wrong side of the path. The Be Kind Autism Vest helps people understand his behavior and that he is not a threat but a friend.”

Exercise and diet helps with sensory issues, mental health, and anxiety. Some great exercises for people with autism are cycling, kayaking, swimming, jogging, and walking. Joey loves cycling and on a good day, he will ride forty-two miles.

Betsy’s insight as a holistic nutritionist, “We try to keep electronic interaction to a minimum and spend our time exploring nature. For a healthy diet we eat organic meat, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables, fish, and use olive oil and avoid processed foods. Our gut is our second brain. Everything we put in our mouths either helps our bodies and minds or hurts it. That’s why our diet consists of the foods people ate from the earth a hundred-and-fifty years ago.”

If your child is a picky eater, Betsy recommends, “Take a food your child is already eating like chicken nuggets and gradually move and change the food, texture to texture, bit by bit, and you create the food that you desire your child to eat. For example, if your child loves McDonalds chicken nuggets switch to a product without chemical flavor enhancers which are addicted to the brain and use instead organic ground chicken, healthy seasonings, and add a few fresh vegetables to mix and fry. This is a gradual way to introduce a healthier meal.”

Betsy is a passionate advocate and her goal is to be a voice for the voiceless, she encourages educators,

Always presumable competence when teaching students who are nonverbal. Realize that each students with autism is unique and has different interests and needs. Connect with your students by showing an interests in their passions. Autism acceptance is not enough, we need to provide rest for the parents and caretakers. Acceptance is good but providing assistants with families’ needs is far better.

To provide support for non-speaking autistics and their families, Betsy writes a blog and founded the nonprofit Autism Odyssey. The mission of her nonprofit is to help shift the cultural perspective of adults living with autism and strengthen engagement in all areas of the community by advocating the right to be social without fear or stigmatism. Autism Odyssey encourages a healthy lifestyle through nutrition and exercise for adults living with autism and their caregivers.

Betsy’s dream is to create a village community for adults with disabilities that provides healthy living and fun activities. Joel is enjoying the Grateful Dead’s music that touches his soul and the Deadhead community of love and inclusion.

About Betsy Hicks-Russ

Betsy Hicks-Russ is a leading expert with over 25 years of experience in holistic health as the former CEO of Green Health Wellness as well author of Picky Eating Solutions (2010) that evolved into an online course. She is the director of Autism Odyssey and creator of the Be Kind Vest. Betsy has delivered lectures around the world about meal planning, special diets, and holistic health for autistic individuals. Her experiences with her son Joey, has driven her to become an impassioned expert on the relationship between nutrition, movement, and fresh air being vital for the mind and body.
Betsy Hicks-Russ is well known for her popular TikTok account @Betsyonthego which has received 4.4 million likes and has 107.4K Followers.

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. Ron has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.

Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.

You can contact Ron at his website or email him at

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