Not everyone was sure the student body at Carmel High School in Putnam, NY would be able to pull off the special celebration planned for Jack Higgins, a graduating senior with autism. Higgins, like many people with autism, is sensitive to loud noises, so the crowd of boisterous graduates was asked to stay as quiet as possible when he received his diploma.
Principal Lou Riolo wasn’t one of the skeptics. He believed in the kids, just like he believed in Higgins.
“You often have to give people the opportunity to rise to an occasion,” Riolo told CNN. “I truly believe people have a kind, compassionate soul and they want to help and this was one of those occasions.”
Before the other graduates received their diplomas, Riolo announced that they would be departing from the typical ceremony and awarding Higgins his diploma first. “I’m gonna ask a big favor of everybody today,” Riolo said after explaining Higgins’ noise sensitivity. “I would like for everyone to not clap and not cheer.”
Riolo then called Higgins to the stage, who was escorted by his brothers. Higgins had been practicing the walk for weeks and, anticipating a loud reaction, he held his fingers in his ears. The noise never came. The entire student body stayed silent, save for some soft golf claps.
While the students’ silence didn’t shock Principal Riolo, what they did next came as a pleasant surprise. One by one, row after row of Carmel High School students stood to give Higgins a standing ovation in complete silence.
“The students were amazing, they are a class act and superseded expectations,” Riolo said. “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. They felt compelled to show their support in that way. They made that amazing compassionate gesture on their own.”
“Compassion” is one of the values Principal Riolo strives to instill in the students of Carmel High School and it was the focus of his opening remarks. Even after a decades-long career in education, Riolo was floored by the compassion the students displayed.
“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,” he said.
Of course, Riolo was also proud of Higgins. “Since Jack is very limited verbally, how overwhelming was if for him with a large crowd and expectation that it would be loud?” he said. “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.”