During his high school graduation ceremony, a student with autism walked onstage to receive his diploma, but instead of loud applause and cheers, he was met with silence.
According to the NIMH, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior”. Although the condition can be diagnosed at any age, it is defined as a developmental disorder because its signs generally manifest in the first two years of life.
There is a wide variation to the type and severity of symptoms that people with ASD exhibit, hence the term “spectrum”. Individuals with ASD tend to have difficulty with communication and interaction, repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and symptoms that can hurt their ability to function well in work, school, and other areas of life.
In Jack’s case, it is his extreme sensitivity to loud noises and limited verbal ability.
His parents, Barbara and Pat, wanted him to be able to participate in the graduation ceremony on June 20 like all of his peers. However, they were concerned that their son would feel overwhelmed sitting in a huge auditorium for hours surrounded by plenty of people, so they consulted Jack’s teacher, Erin Appelle, about the matter.
Jack has been attending Carmel High School in New York for eight years. He is well-known and is a familiar face in the cafeteria, library, hallways, and classrooms of the school. He attends the school’s program for students with cognitive, learning or behavior challenges.
“In our school we have a banner as you enter all of our school buildings #WhatsBestforKids,” Lou Riolo, the school principal, wrote in an email. “It sounds corny but makes sense. But in this case what was best for Jack?”
Lou then thought of a brilliant plan: he would have everyone stay silent when Jack walks onstage. The principal approached his staff members and they all agreed to the plan, so as Jack’s parents.
Before the graduation ceremony, Lou briefed the audience about Jack’s condition and his plea.
“I’m going to ask a big favor of everybody today. I would like everyone to not clap, and not cheer. That’s correct. Not clap and not cheer, because it may overstimulate Jack as he comes to the podium to receive his diploma,” he said.
After the announcement, he called on Jack to come up the stage.
Accompanied by his two brothers and a school aide, Jack approached the stage with his fingers in his ears, bracing for the loud claps and cheers that he expected – but there was no need. The student body and guests stayed as quiet as they could, only giving soft golf claps as Jack received his diploma.
Not only that, the graduating class of 2019 gave Jack a silent standing ovation.
What makes the gesture more remarkable is that they weren’t instructed to do so.
“The students were amazing,” Lou said. “They are a class act and superseded expectations. For example them rising to their feet after Jack received his diploma was them. It was not preplanned and no one told them to act like that that. They felt compelled to show their support in that way. They made that amazing compassionate gesture on their own.”
But aside from the students’ incredible show of solidarity, Lou commended Jack for having the courage to walk on that stage.
“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,” Lou said.
Watch the video below from Good Morning America to see Jack as he receives his diploma.
Congratulations to Jack and to Carmel High’s graduating class of 2019 – you all did a great job!