A high school student with autism received a silent ovation from his classmates as he approached the stage to collect his diploma. Jack Higgins put his fingers in his ears to block out any loud clapping and cheers, but was instead met by silence.
Higgins is a popular student in Carmel High school. He has severe autism and is sensitive to noise, and after studying eight years in the school’s program for those with cognitive, learning or behavior challenges, now he is ready to graduate.
His parents, Barbara and Pat, were eager for him to participate in the ceremony, so they approached his teacher Erin Appelle as there were concerns he would get affected because of sitting for hours in an auditorium filled with people. Lou Riolo, principal of Carmel High in Putnam County, New York wrote an email saying, “In our school we have a banner as you enter all of our school buildings # WhatsBestforKids,” he wrote, “It sounds corny but makes sense. But in this case what was best for Jack?”
Principal Riolo thought of a way to get it done, so he had everyone sit in silence as Higgins walked across the stage. He spoke to members of his staff about it and they all cooperated with the idea, much to the delight of Higgins’ parents.
“It was important to pull this off,” Riolo said. “First off for Jack, second for his family who could experience the same event as every other parent/family whose child reaches this milestone was of great importance. Lastly to give the opportunity to everyone in that arena a chance to assist in making one young man’s and his families graduation dreams a reality.”
Riolo knew that his staff would pull it off but students can be unpredictable and rebellious, he said, “You often have to give people the opportunity to rise to an occasion,” he said. “I truly believe people have a kind, compassionate soul and they want to help and this was one of those occasions.”
Just before the he called Higgins to the graduation stage, he asked everyone in attendance to keep quiet and offer only a soft golf clap. Higgins flanked by his two brothers and school aide Rob Ancona, walked across the stage with his fingers in his ears, but the loud noises he expected were nowhere to be heard because he received a silent standing ovation from the crowd.
The students rose to the occasion and did exactly what their principal told them to do. Riolo did not expect it to go exactly as planned, but was blown away to see the students stand in solidarity with Higgins and support him on his big day.
Riolo went on to says, “I have been lucky and blessed to see some really remarkable things in my 31 year career but this so far has to be the most incredible. But as much as the students rose to the occasion so did Jack. Since Jack is very limited verbally, how overwhelming was if for him with a large crowd and expectation that it would be loud.? It was so brave of him to take that walk which must have seemed like forever and he did it with grace, class and strength.”
What a wonderful show of solidarity by principal Riolo, the staff and students of Carmel High showed for their fellow student with autism. There has to be more sensitivity shown by society towards our brothers and sisters with disabilities.