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High school honors student with autism by having silent graduation

The Higgins family wanted their son to walk at graduation but worried the noise would be too much.
/ Source: TODAY

When Jack Higgins’ high school graduation approached, his parents, Barbara and Patrick Higgins, wanted him to attend. Jack, 21, has severe autism, and they worried that he’d struggle at a loud, crowded event. But, the Higgins dreamed of seeing their son walk across the stage and receive his high school diploma.

“When you have a severe disability, like Jack does, you miss out on life,” Barbara Higgins, 48, of Carmel, New York, told TODAY.

Jack Higgins hates loud noise. So when his family asked Carmel High School to allow him to walk at graduation, they worried the loud auditorium would cause problems.

She said that Jack, who is nonverbal, will never graduate from college or get married so the family wanted him to enjoy the milestone he achieved. But they knew it would be tough. Jack loathes loud noises. Even if he anticipates them he shoves his fingers in his ears. For graduation Jack would be in large auditorium with 354 graduates and about 2,200 people total: It would be impossible for such a crowd to be quiet.

“He has a lot of sensory issues, noise being one of them,” Higgins explained. “It almost seems as if it hurts.”

The couple approached Carmel High School principal, Lou Riolo, and shared their desires — and worries. Riolo knew he’d find a way to accommodate Jack. After brainstorming, he talked with special education teacher Erin Appelle and assistant principal John Fink about his idea: A silent graduation.

“I ran it past my assistant principal because he would be honest,” Riolo told TODAY Parents. “We will do the National Anthem and then there will be a pause and I will explain what we will do. We are going to be silent and quiet because this is for Jack.”

Riolo understands that students like Jack often miss out and he wanted Jack and his family to like part of the graduating class.

“They do not get to experience the same types of milestones in the same way,” he said.

While a friend doubted the school could pull it off, Riolo disagreed.

“I know this community. People will step up. You got to give them a chance to step up,” he said.

When he told the family, they were stunned.

“It was huge for us,” Higgins said.

Jack Higgins has autism and misses a lot of milestones because of it. But his parents Barbara and Patrick wanted him to graduate with his classmates. Courtesy the Higgins family

Still they had no idea that graduation would be as special as it was. Higgins thought that they’d be silent for Jack to get his diploma and then he would leave. What happened was more amazing: Riolo gave a speech highlighting the importance of compassion and explaining how this graduation would be different.

“Unlike many of us Jack is super sensitive to loud noises. So I am asking that we give Jack his diploma first at the beginning of the ceremony. In order to do that I am 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,” Riolo said in his speech.

Riolo said if spectators wanted to congratulate Jack they could silently golf clap. As Riolo called Jack’s name, the entire auditorium was absolutely quiet. Soon, students rose to their feet to give Jack a standing ovation while he walked to the stage, with his ears in his finger, surrounded by brothers, Patrick, 24, and Bryan, 17.

“What Jack did by himself, his internal mechanism, that’s the real story. That’s the bravery,” Riolo said. “It’s just awesome. It was just holy, wow. How could you not get moved … It was a home run for Jack and it was a home run for our kids.”

Jack Higgins' brothers, Patrick and Bryan, helped him walk to get his diploma. They feel happy that Jack's story is going viral so people understand how kindness can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. Courtesy the Higgins family

The Higgins family felt incredibly touched by the students' kindness.

“It was extremely heartwarming. We will never forget it. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had,” Higgins said. “I hope the students never forget and realize what a difference they made in our lives.”