School Once Meant Isolation. Now, an Autistic Graduate Is 'The Mayor' of Parkway West High

By Crouch, Elisa | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

School Once Meant Isolation. Now, an Autistic Graduate Is 'The Mayor' of Parkway West High


Crouch, Elisa, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


CHESTERFIELD * It's lunch period at Parkway West High School and Holt Priest, a senior known as "the Mayor," enters the cafeteria to begin what has been his daily ritual since August.

He arranges seven chairs around a table near the windows. He exchanges handshakes and fist bumps with those who walk past the table. He sits down to chicken tenders and french fries. He cracks open a root beer.

Holt wears a matching hat and T-shirt almost daily. He sits with the same six or seven girls almost without fail. And after he eats, he gets up and circulates, going from table to table, again shaking hands, again fist bumping and greeting just about every student in the lunch room by name.

"Hey, Sarah," he says to a girl in his graduating class. "Where did you get your new glasses?"

Holt is autistic.

On Saturday, he will graduate as one of the most popular and beloved students at West. As he receives his diploma during commencement at Queeny Park, he will end a journey that has been much different from those of his 284 classmates.

When they were at the Parkway Early Childhood Center learning their letters, Holt also was beginning auditory therapy to desensitize him to the pitch of certain noises, such as the squeaky sounds of bus brakes.

When they were in middle school dealing with the changes that come with being an adolescent, Holt also was undergoing music therapy to strengthen fundamental social, interpersonal and motor skills that his classmates took for granted.

Autism is a communications disorder. Those who have it fall along different spots on the spectrum, from low- to high-functioning.

At West, Holt spent much of his freshman year in near isolation from the rest of the student body, attending class with a handful of other special needs students. School was something Holt wanted to escape, and a couple of times, he tried. Occasionally he was bullied. And like many autistic children, Holt struggled socially.

Over the years he overcame that struggle with the help of his parents, classmates and a teacher who trusted in his potential.

In the fall, the seniors voted him Mr. Spirit during homecoming week. Holt took the title seriously, wearing the red and blue satin spirit cape, lined with silver sequins, to basketball games and leading hundreds of Longhorn fans in cheers throughout the season. He would dance to the fight song. He also became one of the home game announcers for the girls' lacrosse team.

He even played football this year as a defensive lineman. On senior night, Holt entered the game as the clock wound down and ran offense, carrying the ball 25 yards. The coach for the opposing team was in on the play. Fans stood and cheered as he carried the ball down the field.

"It felt exciting, actually," Holt said. "The cheerleaders did a cheer for me."

A caring figure

In the lunchroom, Holt moves from table to table, clique to clique, transcending the boundaries that usually divide school lunchrooms.

He greets members of the football team. The girls who play lacrosse. Those who would rather be at home playing video games. The students who often feel invisible.

Holt keeps track of their birthdays on his phone. He brings cards to school. On Valentine's Day, he brought a box of chocolate- covered strawberries for the girls who sit at his table.

"He is a symbol of how we can all come together," said Audrey Frost, who became friends with Holt their junior year. "He can put a smile on anyone's face any time of day. Always happy, super patient. A loving, caring figure at West."

No one, including his parents, predicted such a dramatic transformation.

Kim and Steve Priest learned their son had autism when he was 4 years old and in preschool. He had speech delays, but would make eye contact, Kim Priest said. She and her husband immediately sought out therapy. They began the tireless job of advocating for their son as he moved through school. …

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