Holt Priest is taking his usual stroll around the high school cafeteria. Leaving the group of girls he sits with regularly, Holt makes his rounds, offering high-fives and fist bumps to almost every student in the room, all of which he knows by name.
But the remarkable thing about this seemingly ordinary high school moment, is that Holt is autistic. He did not grow up as the popular football star. He wasn’t the class clown that could make everybody laugh. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Holt was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. Showing signs of delayed speech and motor skills, his parents, Kimberly and Steve Priest, started seeking help early on. While attending Parkway Early Childhood Center in Ballwin, MO, Holt was also sent to auditory therapy to assist with his sensitivity to the pitch of certain noises, a common symptom of autism.
Later on, Holt was given music therapy, with the intention of strengthening his social, interpersonal, and motor skills. But despite all of this, Holt continued to struggle. He had difficulty picking up on social cues, was occasionally bullied, and consequently only interacted with the few other special needs students. He viewed school as something to escape from, and physically tried to once or twice.
“Our biggest obstacle in having a child with autism was incorporating his needs,” Holt’s mom, Kim, told Babble. “Whether they be sensory, language, or behavior issues, to keep our family functioning coherently.”
With Holt’s lack of enthusiasm for school, Kim tried her hardest to make home a place of peace for Holt. “We always wanted home to be a safe haven for him, where he could just be himself,” Kim continued. “Some days that took a lot of patience, but his loving heart always helped us embrace him for who he was.”
Luckily, Holt would soon find comfort in other places outside home. Thanks to one influential special education teacher, Darla Maynard. While working with Holt during his sophomore year at Parkway West High School, Maynard formed a bond with Holt and recognized his determination to improve, buried under years of insecurity.
Maynard did something that no therapist had tried with Holt, she let him make decisions for himself. He wanted to be in regular classes. He wanted to interact with the other students. So while simultaneously training Holt in self-confidence and the social skills needed to participate in typical high school settings, Maynard let Holt write his own educational program. While this plan is usually created by school administrators and the student’s parents, Holt took his future into his own hands — and it made all the difference.
“Every time I gave him an opportunity, he would exceed everybody’s expectations,” Maynard told The Bulletin.
Holt decided to enroll in a general biology class, signed himself up for choir, and even expressed an interest in sports the following year.
And that was the beginning of Holt’s transformation.
Dressed in a matching T-shirt and hat every day, Holt quickly became a beloved member for his graduating class. He kept track of everyone’s birthday, bringing in cards to celebrate with his friends. He even bought chocolate-covered strawberries on Valentine’s Day for the girls he sits with at lunch. Holt was voted “Mr. Spirit” during homecoming week of his senior year, an honor he took great pride in, wearing his special red satin spirit cape for basketball games and other school events.
Eventually, Holt asked to participate in football and the activities director at Parkway West High School, Brian Kessler, agreed to bring Holt on to help out at the home games. Kessler described Holt’s transformation as remarkable. “He started to trust us,” Kessler said to the The Bulletin. “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.”
And this could not have been more evident than on Football Senior Night at Parkway West.
While Holt’s usual responsibilities involved retrieving the ball whenever it crossed the sidelines, Holt was allowed to actually play during the senior game. Acting as defensive lineman, Holt ran onto the field as the clock wound down, carrying the ball 25 yards. In an effort to make Holt feel included, both Parkway West’s football coach and the coach on the opposing team were in on the play, but that did not hinder the enthusiasm of the moment.
Fans stood and shouted their praises. His teammates offered up hugs and high-fives. The cheerleaders cheered. And Holt loved every minute of it. “It felt exciting, actually,” Holt said. “The cheerleaders did a cheer for me.”
Commenting on the emotional moment, Kim added: “ Our emotions of pride and gratitude were beyond compare in seeing the team’s, cheerleader’s, and stadiums fan’s reaction to Holt’s football play.”
To watch her son (who just a few short years ago struggled to simply talk to others) blossom in such a way, was breathtaking.
“We were proud of him to be brave enough to try,” Kim tells Babble.
Some of Holt’s favorite things to do now involve going to school, socializing with friends, and attending sporting events. Exceeding everyone’s expectations, Holt made tremendous strides in just four years. Holt was even granted the Founder’s Award at his senior awards ceremony.
Nominated by two of his teachers, Holt was the first student of his cognitive ability to achieve this honor, an award given to a student who demonstrates what Parkway West students stand for: good character, academics, and school spirit. Kim told Babble that Holt was very excited about his award. “He smiled big and felt that he didn’t go out of his way in earning the award, he was just being himself.”
“I am most proud of Holt for his friendliness, compassion, and the willingness to see good in everyone,” says Kim. Qualities of which were not missed by Holt’s classmates. Beyond his personal achievements, Holt has affected his classmates more than he knows. While high school can be a place of cliques and mean kids, Holt has managed to not only make friends, a triumph for someone on the spectrum, but to break the boundaries of high school.
“He is a symbol of how we can all come together,” said Audrey Frost, a friend of Holt’s. “He can put a smile on anyone’s face any time of day. Always happy, super patient. A loving, caring figure at West.”
All the while, trying harder than most to make those social connections possible. A truly incredible transformation, especially for a boy who struggles with autism.
“We hope it inspires other families to believe in their child’s successes, whatever those may look like,” said Kim. “Our kid’s maturity levels are different than the typical child’s.” For other parents who may be struggling with a child on the spectrum, Kim advocates to “teach them patience and determination to achieve goals when they are developmentally ready. Foster independence in your children to help build their confidence and encourage them to advocate for themselves.”
But most of all, it’s important to “love them for EXACTLY who they are; it’s hard for our kids to be comfortable and thrive with who they are, if we are not.”
Holt graduated Parkway West High School on May 14, 2016. Upon achieving his diploma, Holt plans to look for a part-time job with a local company.
Embarking on a new and challenging journey, we have no doubt that Holt will take this next chapter of his life in stride, much as he did before.