Thursday, July 9, 2020
Autistic Student Charms Graduation Crowd
“I can’t wait to see you all in high school,” Diesel Ward told his 276 eighth-grade classmates at Wood River Middle School.
Friday, June 7, 2019


Diesel Ward came from the back of the gym, walking tentatively at first but picking up speed along with bravado.

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen, teachers and students,” he said, looking out over hundreds of faces. “I’m Diesel Ward. And today’s a big day for all of us—today’s graduation!”

His classmates—the largest class in the history of the Blaine County School District-- roared their approval. And with that the eighth-grader with long auburn curls became the first autistic student ever to speak at a Wood River Middle School eighth-grade Recognition, or Advancement, Ceremony.

Strings students played a special number for Rebecca Martin, a popular orchestra teacher who has announced she will not be coming back next year.

“When they asked me to speak today, I thought, ‘Why me?’ ” he recounted, his finger punctuating the air. “Then I thought, ‘Why not me?’ Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.”

Ward has attended Blaine County Schools since a 3-year-old, getting his start in the developmental preschool at the old Woodside Elementary School. He was extremely shy entering sixth grade but gained confidence as he realized his schoolmates would not ridicule or bully him, recalled Principal Fritz Peters.

“We work with our students on that. We had a ‘Ban the R’ word campaign. NAMI’s helped out with that kind of thing. And we make sure that our special needs students are part of our culture,” Peters said. “We put the kids in the lifestyle classes in the center of the school so the kids see them and have a chance to engage with them. And we give them responsibilities, like recycling, so they’re an active part of the student body.”

Ward is a decorated athlete and one of the founding members of the autism specific program at the middle school under teacher Mike Stemp.

Principal Fritz Peters and others listen as Josephine Gilman serves as Master of Ceremonies.

When it came to selecting a speaker for this year’s advancement ceremony, Ward was the obvious choice, Peters said.

“I know how his class feels about him. And I thought it would give him the chance to end his middle school career on an amazing note.”

The school asked Ward to do the commencement speech six weeks ago, swearing him to secrecy until the morning of the ceremony.

His mother helped him write his speech, asking him to think of advice he would give to students following him.

Students invited Rebecca Martin to play with them, then embraced her in tearful hugs.

Ward responded by writing a well-crafted speech in which he called Wood River Middle School “an awesome school” that he was proud to be part of, full of fun times, great assemblies, super cool parties and really fun talent shows.

“I never got to sing in a talent show, but I’m sure you’ve heard me sing one or twice in the hallway,” he said, alluding to the countless times he belted out a tune.

“Living with autism isn’t easy,” he added. “But you all made it much better for me. Thank you for letting me sing and dance in the hallway. Thank you for playing basketball with me at lunch. And thank you for letting me be Diesel—the best Diesel I can be.”

Then he offered up his advice:

Max Stimac’s vocal students sang the National Anthem.

  • Always give 100 percent—try your hardest at everything you do.
  • Help people around you because you never know when you might need help.
  • Be a friend with everyone because we all need friends.
  • Always be yourself because you ‘re at your best when you’re being you.

He then raised his foot behind him, a signal to Peters that he was happy. Peters stepped to the podium and clasped Ward’s hand, raising it in the air as Ward sang a few measures from Spongebob Squarepants’ “The Best Day Ever.”

Then the boy headed off the stage shouting “High fives for everyone!” as he skipped back to his seat.

Diesel’s parents Billy and Kory watched from the bleachers, their hearts about to burst. And Diesel’s twin sister Jette, who played on a school volleyball team that didn’t lose a single set in two years, blushed after hearing her brother refer to her as someone who would always be there for him.

“We couldn’t be prouder,” said Kory. “Diesel’s a happy kid. He likes drama, swimming and 4-H. But, as he grows older, the maturity gap between he and his classmates grows. So, it’s wonderful to see this and how well accepted he is by his peers.”

It didn’t take much prodding to get Diesel to say how he felt about the whole thing.

“I felt proud to be an American,” he said, seizing words from a song. “I felt like, ‘I can do this!’ ”


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