Graduation ceremonies are filled with cheers, clapping, and hollers for the students’ hard work. But for one New York student, this wasn’t a moment of excitement; it was sheer dread. The graduate was very sensitive to loud noise, and over 2,000 yelling people would have prevented him from walking.
To help the student through the ceremony, everyone in the auditorium had to remain silent. But this was easier said than done. How could the parents, principal, and peers pull it off? Read the heartwarming story that inspired people from around the world.
A Graduation Worth Receiving
On June 20th, 2019, Jack Higgins was scheduled to graduate from Carmel High School in New York. The 21-year-old had struggled through his high school career because of his severe autism. He is nonverbal and communicates through apps.
“When you have a severe disability, like Jack, does, you miss out on life,” said his mother, Barbara Higgins. Jack’s family understood how important it was for him to attend the graduation ceremony. But there was one problem.
Sensitive to Loud Noises
High school graduations are filled with cheering and applause for the students. But because of his autism, Jack is extremely sensitive to loud noises. “It almost seems as if it hurts,” Barbara told TODAY.
According to the Interactive Autism Network, people with autism struggle to filter their senses. For instance, most students can “turn off” the cheering and focus on receiving their diploma. Autism patients cannot filter sounds in their brain, which results in many of them receiving pain from noise.
Should They Even Go?
Jack’s reaction to loud sounds gave his mother pause. Barbara anticipated that Jack’s stress could lead to an outburst, which would embarrass him. She didn’t want her son’s big day to turn into a terrible memory.
But Jack’s dad, Pat, didn’t let the fear persuade him. “My husband said, ‘We’re going, he’s got to have that experience, we need to have this experience,’” Barbara told The Examiner News. Jack had worked for eight years in the school’s PACE program to graduate. He deserved the moment.
Skipping Was Not An Option
Throughout the planning, everyone understood that skipping the graduation ceremony was not an option. In an interview with TODAY, Barbara Higgins expressed her worries that Jack would never marry or graduate from college.
Although Jack’s parents wanted him to graduate, they didn’t want the experience to hurt him. The auditorium would house 354 graduating students and over 2,200 people in total. How would that entire crowd manage to be quiet?
How Could They Help?
Two months before the ceremony, Jack’s parents reached out to his special ed teacher, Erin Appelle, and expressed their concerns. “We knew the experience would probably be the biggest one of [Jack’s] life,” Barabara Higgins told Good Morning America.
Appelle, who had worked with Jack frequently, understood their concerns. She took the problem to the school’s principal, Lou Riolo. Unbeknownst to the Higgins, the principal ended up being the perfect man to take on the job.
Principal Riolo shared the Higgins’ excitement–and their fears. Since he has a daughter with down syndrome, he understands that special needs kids don’t often get to experience milestones that traditional families can.
Over his long career in education, Riolo learned that Jack’s situation is common. According to the Simons Simplex Collection research project, at least 65% of people with autism are sensitive to loud noises. Riolo knew that a cheering crowd would ruin Jack’s big day.
Time To Help
Riolo wanted to give Jack the moment that every other student had. As a graduate and former teacher of Carmel High School, he was the perfect person to help. He knew the community more than anyone else.
Riolo told CNN that it was important to pull it off. “First off for Jack,” he clarified, “second for his family who could experience the same event as every other parent/family whose child reaches this milestone was of great importance.”
Brainstorming A Solution
Riolo wasted no time working to accommodate Jack. He met with Jack’s teacher, Appelle, and his assistant principal John Fink. “I ran it past my assistant principal because he would be honest,” Riolo admitted.
And he would need honesty because Riolo’s idea seemed impossible. He proposed a silent graduation for Jack at the beginning of the ceremony. After playing the National Anthem, Jack would receive his diploma first, and then Riolo would tell the audience to remain silent and not clap.
It’d Be Hard, To Say The Least
Riolo’s plan was easier said than done. The auditorium would seat 354 graduates and over 2,200 guests overall. Graduating students would be excited and rowdy; there’s no guarantee that everyone would listen.
But when asked if everyone could pull it off, Riolo always said yes. “You often have to give people the opportunity to rise to the occasion,” he said. “I truly believe people have a kind, compassionate soul, and they want to help, and this was one of those occasions.”
Jack knew that the graduation ceremony would involve painfully loud cheering. Understandably, he felt anxious. When the day came, Jack immediately covered his ears in anticipation. No one told him about the plan in hopes that he would be pleasantly surprised.
Jack was accompanied by his reassuring brothers, Patrick and Bryan. His school aid, Rob Ancona, also supported him. Despite the reassurance, Jack still worried that the experience would be painful–not relieving or exciting as graduation should be.
During The Fateful Day
When graduation day came, the ceremony proceeded as planned. The National Anthem played, and before other students came up, Riolo approached the mic. He told the audience that Jack would come up first.
“Unlike many of us, Jack is super sensitive to loud noises,” Riolo prefaced. “I’m going to ask a big favor of everybody today. I would like everyone to not clap, and not cheer.” No one had been told about Riolo’s plan beforehand.
What Would Happen?
“That’s correct. Not clap and not cheer,” Riolo continued, “because it may overstimulate Jack as he comes to the podium to receive his diploma.” Instead of cheering, Riolo instructed the audience to either cheer in sign language (twisting hands in the air) or clap very lightly.
Nothing guaranteed that the audience would follow along. Although Jack was well-known around the school, the students hadn’t expected this turn of events. As Jack approached the podium, he plugged his ears in anticipation.
When Jack walked up to the podium, nobody made a noise. The audience either padded their hands together or waved at him. Jack quickly realized that his graduation wasn’t what he feared and lowered his hands.
Principal Riolo surprised Jack by handing him his favorite snack, Sour Patch Kids. Riolo handed Jack’s brother his diploma and congratulated the graduate softly. Against all the odds, the ceremony was already going far better than Jack (and his principal) had anticipated.
But Then, An Unexpected Turn Of Events
Although the crowd remained silent, not everything went according to plan. When Jack walked back down the aisle, the graduates all stood. They gave Jack a silent ovation, which was not pre-established or verbally agreed upon by anyone.
“I have been lucky and blessed to see some really remarkable things in my 31-year career,” Riolo later said. “But this, so far, has to be the most incredible…We shot for the moon, but instead reached the stars.”
How Jack Reacted
Barbara Higgins barely saw the ceremony; she was too busy “ugly crying.” She said that Jack appeared calm after the ceremony, entirely different than how he entered the auditorium. “I believe he had his moment,” she later said.
Although Jack is nonverbal, he finds other ways to communicate. He speaks through typing, body language, and expressions that his family has learned to interpret. Plus, there is hope; a 2013 study in Pediatrics found that over 70% of nonverbal autistic people eventually learn to speak some phrases.
Changing The Family’s Life
Jack’s family also felt overjoyed after the ceremony. “We will never forget it,” his mother said. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I hope the students never forget and realize what a difference they made in our lives.”
Pat recalled that it was a tremendous moment for his family to see Jack graduate like everyone else. He and Barbara agreed that they would never forget that night. “I think everyone was blown away with how special it was,” Pat said.
Jack’s graduation was filmed and posted online. It quickly went viral, filling the hearts of people around the world. Riolo summed up everyone’s reactions: “How could you not be moved?”
Jack’s father, Pat Higgins, said that he still tears up watching the recording, even after seeing it over ten times. “I know myself and my wife were kind of crying leaving the graduation,” he told The Examiner News. “It was as good a thing as we’ve had in Jack’s entire life.”
Helping Others As Well As Jack
Commenters not only expressed heartwarming joy for the graduation, but some also felt grateful. Others with Autism, Asperger’s, or Down Syndrome received hope from the video. It reminded others that people will rise to the occasion when they need to.
Rick Kreps, the school board president who has attended every graduation since 1999, he’s never seen a ceremony as heartwarming as this one. “In this climate, in this country right now, [this moment is] darn important,” Riolo asserted.
And There’s Something Special About Jack
Perhaps there’s something about Jack which made the moment as special as it was. In Barbara’s experience, everyone who has met Jack talks about how much they adore him. Jack knew many staff members at the school well.
Still, Barbara said that Jack’s autism came with challenges such as aggression. “I can be isolating,” she admitted. Jack’s sensory sensitivities prevented the family from visiting community events, but this night helped them feel welcome and happy.
Where Is Jack Now?
After graduating, Jack attended Ability Beyond. The organization helps people with disabilities learn how to live on their own and trains them for careers. Meanwhile, his story continues to inspire people around the world. Like every high school graduation, his options are open.
“If you have to think of why things like this happen to kids, everybody says that things happen for a reason,” his mother said. “The compassion shown by everyone in that room must be the reason.”