CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — 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.

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

Holt has autism.

On Saturday, he was to graduate as one of the most popular and beloved students at West, ending 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 students with special needs. School was something Holt wanted to escape, and a couple of times, he tried. Occasionally he was bullied. And like many children with autism, 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.

Everything about public education must be rethought for children with autism. Some have above-average intelligence. Others struggle to read. By high school, some can be integrated into classrooms. But even then, they have barriers to overcome, many of them social.

“So many families — their journeys are different,” Kim Priest said. “We have just been really fortunate.”

‘We’re trying this’

At West, the critical moment came during Holt’s sophomore year, when he met Darla Maynard, a special education teacher.

In Holt, Maynard saw a boy who wasn’t engaged in school but who wanted to be. He struggled with social cues and had the scars of a youth who’d been bullied. She immediately began helping him develop self-confidence and self-determination. She did something no other special education teacher had done up to that point: She allowed Holt to make his own decisions. She allowed him to have a voice.

Holt told Maynard he wanted to be in regular classes. She gave him hours of training to give him the social skills he needed to do so. Holt that year took general biology. He also enrolled in choir.

“I put him out there and talked to the teachers and said, ‘We’re trying this,'” Maynard said. “The teachers were amazing. The teachers worked with us and worked with his social issues.”

Maynard took the unusual step of asking Holt to write his own individual education program. The special education document, typically crafted by school administrators and parents, outlines what a student needs and is expected to accomplish in a school year.

“Every time I gave him an opportunity, he would exceed everybody’s expectations,” Maynard said.

His junior year, Holt expressed interest in being involved with sports. His father approached the activities director about allowing Holt to help out during football games — getting the ball whenever it crossed the sidelines.

Activities Director Brian Kessler agreed. Every home game, Steve Priest would stand with Holt, directing his son when it was time to get the ball and where he needed to throw it.

Holt’s senior year, Holt himself approached the head coach about playing football. The coach allowed him to try. The transformation was remarkable, Kessler said. “He started to trust us,” Kessler said. “We started to form a bond. All of us, Holt and the school. People started to take care of Holt. People started to embrace Holt. And Holt started to embrace people.”

Being Himself

Inside the living room of his home, Holt showed photos of his time in high school. His favorite memories are from his junior and senior years, printed on sheets of paper. There are group shots with friends at prom; a photo of Holt running with the football on senior night; Holt standing before the crowd at a Longhorn basketball game wearing the red spirit cape; Holt impersonating Drew Carey, host of “The Price is Right” game show, at the school’s Mr. Longhorn Pageant.

“West is a good school, actually,” Holt said. “I’ve got good memories there.”

Last week, as the entire student body looked on, Holt received the Founders’ Award, the most prestigious honor given by faculty at West.

Principal Jeremy Mitchell read the remarks from a staff member about how Holt embodies the school’s core values: inclusion and respect. “By being himself, he unselfishly brings joy and warmth to his class, to our school and to our community,” Mitchell read.

After graduation, Holt’s friends will scatter, departing for schools such as the University of Missouri-Columbia, Truman State University and the University of Arkansas.

Holt will look for a job. He will have a career coach through St. Louis ARC, a United Way agency that provides support and services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The change will be another journey into the unknown for Holt and his family.

His sister, Kristin, will be a sophomore next year. Kessler said he hopes Holt will continue coming to games and cheering for the Longhorns.

Holt says he intends to.

© 2016 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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