By David Fong
CASSTOWN — It was a moment Austin Kleiner will never forget.
“I’ll even remember this when I’m an old man,” the Miami East High School senior said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Chances are, neither will anyone else in attendance Sept. 30 who saw Kleiner named East’s homecoming king before the football team’s game against Bethel High School.
“In my 25 years at East, it was the coolest moment of my professional life,” said Miami East teacher Noelle Mumpower-Davis, who helps with the homecoming court process.
Being named homecoming king or queen is a monumental event in any teenagers’ life, but it was particularly special for Kleiner and the Miami East community. At a young age, Kleiner was diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder often characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, along with restricted and repetitive behavior.
“He’s social, but he’s not social … he’s social in his own way,” said Andria Kleiner, Austin’s mother. “It’s nice to know folks who spend time with him at school appreciate his uniqueness. It was nice to see his positives appreciated.”
His fellow classmates voted Kleiner onto the homecoming court and then, after he had been named to the court, voted him king, along with homecoming queen Emma Linn.
“It made me feel like a celebrity,” Kleiner said of being named homecoming king. “I was surprised. I was just happy to be voted onto the court by the vast majority of my classmates. I was equally excited and nervous about my chances.”
When Kleiner heard his name announced as the homecoming king before the game, he could barely contain his excitement. He threw up his hands in victory as he received a huge cheer from the crowd.
“I was happy,” he said. “I held up my ‘rock on’ symbols. I was exceptionally thankful.”
Andria Kleiner said her entire family has been thankful for the way her son has been accepted and encouraged at Miami East on a daily basis, not just the night he was elected homecoming king. In addition to his intervention classes, Kleiner also has had the opportunity to take “typical” classes alongside the rest of his classmates.
“Miami East has been such a nurturing environment — everyone there, the staff and students,” she said. “He has blossomed so much at Miami East. He’s been integrated into typical classes; he’s not isolated from everyone else.
I remember when we met with the principal, Mr. (Todd) Gentis for Austin’s first formal IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. He asked Austin how he would feel about being in typical classes. Austin told him, ‘It makes me feel a lot less disabled.’”
Austin’s mother said him being named homecoming king was just the latest example of how caring the school district has been, from top to bottom, for her son.
“I was thrilled for him,” she said. “It was over the top for him. All we’ve ever wanted is for him to have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
As incredible as being crowned king before the football game was for Kleiner, the magic continued the next night when he attended the homecoming dance.
“I got one dance with my queen,” he said. “It went extremely well. We were both excited. My queen cried tears of joy.”
Chance are, she wasn’t alone.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong