When Nick Dinzeo and Devin Wildes were fourth-graders, they played football and wrestled.
As they got older, they went skiing at Afton Alps and tubing on the St. Croix River.
When Nick got his driver’s license two years ago, one of his first stops was Devin’s house in Stillwater. “Hey, Devin! You want to go for a ride?” he yelled from the front seat of his mom's silver 2003 Ford Explorer. The teens took off, 93X-FM radio blaring heavy-metal music.
Now, Nick and Devin are 18 — ready to graduate from Stillwater Area High School.
“We’re like brothers,” Nick says. “He’s my companion. He’s such a big part of my life. He’s like the other half of me.”
That assessment only begins to reveal how these boys have bonded through the years.
Devin has autism — a central fact in his life. He rarely speaks. He struggles to pay attention. He has trouble learning and interacting with others.
That the friendship between Nick and Devin has flourished through the teen years is a testament to both boys — and their parents.
Nick, say Devin’s parents, has been instrumental in helping Devin overcome the social isolation and withdrawal that come with the disorder.
“It’s difficult to have a social relationship with Devin,” says his mother, A.J. Paron-Wildes. “He has so many barriers, and Nick has just been so persistent and dedicated and unwavering — where most people would think, ‘It’s too hard, it’s too much work, we don’t have as much in common,’ he still keeps Devin as part of his life.”
The friendship works both ways, say Nick’s parents.
“Nick feels comfortable with Devin,” Shannon Dinzeo says. “He’s kind of a quiet guy, and I think Devin was kind of his bridge to connect with others. He’d be, like, ‘Hey, have you met Devin?’ ”
“I love hanging out with Devin,” Nick says. “He’s more talkative and more aware than he was before. I’ve learned a lot from Devin. Patience is probably the biggest one — and how to treat people.”
One of Devin’s best days, according to Paron-Wildes, was that day Nick got his driver’s license.
When Nick drove up and yelled for him, Devin raced out the door, barely stopping to put on his jacket and shoes, she says.
“He’s in the front seat with his best friend, and they’ve got the tunes cranking,” she says. “When they got back … he had this grin from one ear to the other. He said, ‘That was the best, Mom. That was awesome!’ ”
Devin has no interest in learning how to drive himself.
“He’ll say: ‘I don’t need to drive. Nick can drive,’ ” Paron-Wildes says. “He totally made the connection. ‘Hey, he can drive me to Target now. We can go to Walmart. We can go places, and my parents don’t have to come along.’ ”
Through the years
The boys met in 2006 when Devin and his family moved to Stillwater. Paron-Wildes sent out a flier to Devin’s fourth-grade classmates at Stonebridge Elementary asking if any students would be interested in having a play date with Devin; Nick volunteered.
“We moved here because we wanted to live in a community that would embrace Devin,” Paron-Wildes says. “I wanted him to be in a school district where the kids would grow up with him and understand and help him through the terrible years of middle school and include him in his high school years.”
During elementary school, Nick helped Devin learn how to ride a bike, play football and wrestle.
When they moved to Stillwater Junior High School, Devin’s father, Pete Wildes, picked up Nick in the morning and drove the boys to school. Nick would walk in with Devin and make sure he got to his locker.
Extra: Read our 2009 story about the boys as 13-year-olds.
Nick continued to look out for Devin in high school. He was a reading assistant in one of Devin’s special-education classes and helped coach Devin’s Special Olympics basketball and track teams.
Nick, a cashier and stock boy at Walmart in Oak Park Heights, often brings Devin in to see his co-workers.
“They all know he’s my special friend,” Nick says. “They give him respect; that’s what I like.”
In Nick, Devin has a companion even when he’s crabby. He also has a peer who understands him, challenges him, has fun with him and stands up for him.
“The kids at school wouldn’t know Devin nearly as well if Nick hadn’t championed him,” Paron-Wildes says. “If something happens, they’ll go find Nick and say, ‘Hey, did you see this happen to Devin?’ or ‘Did you hear what this person said to Devin?’ And then he’ll either go handle it and take care of it, or he’ll get it to the right person to do something about it.”
The friendship provides Devin with an opportunity to experience typical high school events and activities with someone his own age, said Amy Hoffman, a special-education teacher at Stillwater Area High School.
“It’s not every day that two students with such differences can form and maintain such a meaningful friendship,” Hoffman says. “Nick and Devin are an inspiration; they’ve modeled for us what a genuine friendship truly is.”
How it works
When Nick talks with Devin, he says his name a lot to get his attention, he makes sure Devin is looking at him, and he often pats Devin’s chest. He did all three at a Buffalo Wild Wings after a recent basketball practice.
“When we go out, where do we usually go?” Nick asked.
“Walmart!” Devin said.
“What do we usually get?” Nick asked.
“Star Wars!” Devin said.
“We get toys,” Nick said. “We walk around for a while. We get Starburst (candies) every time. I still have some of those in my car from you. What else do we do other than Walmart? Do we wrestle?”
“Wrestle!” Devin said.
“We still do that,” Nick said, patting Devin on the chest. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the life right there. We drive around the town. Devin, do we drive around?”
“Yes!” Devin said.
When they aren’t out cruising in Nick's gold 2001 Mercury Sable, the boys hang out at Devin’s new house in Oak Park Heights — playing Xbox video games, watching movies and listening to music. Devin likes rock groups such as Linkin Park; Nick likes country stars such as Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. They both like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.”
Devin’s favorite all-time song? Europe’s 1986 classic “The Final Countdown.”
“We listen to it over and over and over and over,” Nick says.
Devin, the artist
Devin, a talented artist, took first place in painting at this year’s Da Vinci Fest, the art and science fair sponsored by The Partnership Plan for Stillwater-area students. “Garden Party” shows a bug’s-eye view of a picnic, with hands swatting the bugs away. It was coupled with an artist’s statement that talked about how Devin sometimes feels like that bug.
“It’s his perception of what it’s like to be the spider and the fly,” Paron-Wildes says of the colorful painting that hangs outside Devin’s bedroom. “He wanted it a little gory because, you know, bugs are sort of gross. That’s grass, and that’s blood. When I first got it, I hung it upside down, and he yelled at me.”
A drawing hanging on his bedroom wall features a velociraptor going through an elaborate machine and coming out a bird. “I think that is evolution to Devin,” Paron-Wildes says.
When he draws, Devin puts pencil to paper and draws in one movement.
“He doesn’t sketch,” she says. “He just draws it all at once. You can see how deliberative all of his strokes are.”
Devin, whose bedroom features a large storage room for his massive Lego collection, recently re-created the entire “Alien” movie using Lego stop-motion animation.
When Paron-Wildes, an architectural and design manager, needed to explain to clients how groups of desks could “morph” into different shapes, she turned to Devin. He devised a series of animated videos for her.
“He has a brilliant mind, but he can’t always apply it,” she says. “He’s like a 12-year-old boy.”
Devin’s recent obsession has been buying classic Transformers action figures on eBay. One of his last purchases was the Transformers Prime Robots in Disguise Deluxe Class Series 1 Airachnid.
“He goes in stages,” Nick says. “It will probably be Godzilla now because the movie just came out. That will probably last for a month or two, and then he’ll switch to something else.”
After graduation, Devin plans to continue living at home, take art classes this summer and be part of the Transition program at Stillwater Area High School for the next three years. The program helps students ages 18 to 21 who have disabilities gain independent-living, job, social and functional skills.
Nick, the coach
Nick will live at home and start at Century College in White Bear Lake in the fall. He plans to pursue an associate’s degree in marketing and continue working for Walmart.
One day, he says, he might pursue a career as a special-education teacher.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to help Pete Wildes coach Devin’s Special Olympics basketball team.
“Nick enjoys working with these athletes just as much as I do,” Wildes says. “He can connect with them, and he pulls them out of their shells so that they are a lot more social.”
In addition to basketball, Devin competes in downhill skiing and track.
“Sports are nice because it gets him out and active,” Nick says. “It’s a little bit different than the high-school sports, but they’re still getting the basics of it. They’re not just learning the sport; they’re learning how to be part of a team and to respect each other.”
During a practice at Stillwater Junior High School in March, Nick ran up and down the court with the athletes.
“Sometimes, you have to explain it to them in multiple ways,” he says. “Coaches that I had would tell you what to do, and you did it. With these kids, you’ve got to run around with them because if they see you doing it, then they will go and do the same thing.”
Nick has always been patient with kids who have special needs, Shannon Dinzeo says.
“I really think that Nick has a compassion for those he feels can’t speak for themselves,” she says. “He’ll see someone walking down the street, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Where other people may turn their bodies and won’t make eye contact, Nick doesn’t care.”
In April, Nick was named a Student of the Month at the high school — in part because of his work with Devin and other special-education students at the school. “Nick gets a lot of community recognition,” Paron-Wildes says. “All the parents in Special Olympics want to adopt him.”
Shannon Dinzeo says Nick’s future wife had better like Devin, because Nick plans to have Devin live with him. She thinks the boys will remain friends forever.
“I think that if (the friendship) were going to fade, it would have during his teen years … when they seem to be a little impressionable with others,” she says. “Nick has a very strong character. He doesn’t really care what other people feel or think. He is going to stand up for what he believes in his heart is the right thing.”
Spending time with Nick has given Wildes and Paron-Wildes a window into what it would have been like to have a neuro-typical son, they say.
“Nick makes up for a lot of things that we would have missed,” Paron-Wildes says. “It’s the good, bad and ugly that comes along with raising an 18-year-old typical kid. He is our normalcy. Sometimes, we see what Nick is doing and wish that Devin was more normal, and then there are times we look at the situations a regular 18-year-old is facing today and feel we have the perfect child in Devin and are lucky he is the way he is.”
Paron-Wildes says she is grateful the boys met while they were young.
“If they hadn’t met then, when they were young and in school and when Nick was blessedly naive, they probably wouldn’t be the buddies they are today,” she says.
“Their story is truly an example of why inclusion is so important. I am seeing a rise of autism programs that just focus on therapy, but if the kids don’t have any school-typical friends that help them grow up and are willing to go out on a limb for them when they are older — and it isn’t cool to do so — special-needs kids will be more excluded than ever.”
Nick hopes he and Devin will be role models for others.
“I feel like everybody starting out in elementary school — like, third or fourth grade — should have a special-needs friend or be a companion to one because you will learn from them, and they’ll learn from you,” he says. “Devin and I have shown how it can work and what a joy it is for everyone involved.”