Graduation ceremony goes silent so student with autism and sensory issues can receive diploma

For one student, the sound of silence made his graduation incredibly special.

Graduations are usually full of cheers, but for one student the sound of silence made his moment incredibly special.

Jack Higgins, a student at Carmel High School in New York, has a severe case of autism and is also non-verbal. His autism makes him extremely sensitive to loud noises, so when it came time for him to graduate, his parents were weary of bringing him to his graduating class’s ceremony.

That’s when the Higgins family and the Carmel High School principal Lou Riolo sat down to come up with a plan.

“We wanted to him to walk in his graduation,” Jack’s mom Barbara Higgins said. “We knew the experience would probably be the biggest one of his life.”

Riolo then came up with a plan that he would ask the student body to be silent while Higgins came up to get his diploma. Instead of loud cheering, he would give them the option to golf clap or clap in sign language.

For Riolo, who also is the father of a child with special needs, it was important for him to make the moment special for not only Jack but the entire Higgins family.

“Things like this are easy to do when you get the support,” Riolo said. “It seems like a big deal, but that’s the culture at Carmel. The community always pulls together.”

The day of graduation, Barbara Higgins admits she was nervous for how Riolo’s plot would go down. However, she was blown away by how his big plan flourished into a beautiful moment.

Riolo took to the stage and told the students about Jack and harped on one of their school mottos: Compassion. He told them how much of an asset Jack has been to his class and the Carmel High School community.

He then asked the students to do something special.

“I’m going to ask a big favor of everybody today. I would like for everybody to not clap and not cheer. That’s correct. Not clap, and not cheer,” Riolo said.

Riolo then called Jack Higgins's name to get his diploma and the crowd fell silent. When Higgins finally reached the stage to receive his diploma, the student body did something that wasn’t previously asked of them, they rose to their feet.

“I’ve been an educator for 31 years and I’ve seen a lot of amazing things,” Tiolo said. “The kids stood up on their own.”

All Barbara Higgins said she could do in the moment was cry.

“We were just in awe of what happened there,” Higgins said. “It was something we will never forget. I don’t think anyone who was a part of it will ever forget.”

Jack is non-verbal, so he couldn’t articulate how he felt in the moment to his family. However, Barbara Higgins felt his emotions.

“Communication we have with him is tangible,” Higgins said. “Just the fact of how calm he was during and after – I believe he had his moment.”

Although this may have seemed like a small gesture for the students and their families, for Barbara Higgins it gave sight into the bigger picture.

“If you have to think of why things like this happen to kids, everybody says that things happen for a reason,” Higgins said. “The compassion shown by everyone in that room must be the reason.”

After graduation, Jack will attend Ability Beyond, a program that takes adults with disabilities out in the community and hopes to prepare them for employment.