Students out to fulfill wish of autistic classmate

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PITTSBURG, Kan. (AP) — The night before Bryce Commons started high school, his mother got no sleep.

"When I walked him in the first day, my stomach was churning," she said. "Would he be picked on? Would people make fun of him?"

A lot has happened in four years.

On May 17, he will graduate — a milestone that at one time was nearly inconceivable: When he was 3 years old, doctors diagnosed him with severe autism and told his parents, Mandy and Chad Commons, he'd never progress beyond the abilities of a 4-year-old.

It's been a difficult road filled with potholes, his mother said. Some years have been better than others. But what has endured since that first day at Pittsburg High School has been the support, acceptance and friendship of students and staff members.

"Every day — and I kid you not — on Facebook I see at least one post or news article, if not more, where an autistic child is bullied, beaten up or worse at their school," Mandy Commons said.

By contrast, last fall the student body at Pittsburg High School elected Bryce the football homecoming king. It wasn't a joke, his mother noted.

"They were completely serious," she said.

For three years, he has served as the beloved Purple Dragon mascot at football and basketball games.

And just a month before graduation, when most students are dreaming of summer vacation and seniors are busy applying to colleges and lining up jobs, they began a project in further support of Bryce. They call it "Project Dream."

The goal: create enough buzz via social media to bring about a meeting between Bryce and American actress and singer Selena Gomez, whom he loves.

It was the brainchild of Sarah Jewett, a senior who befriended Bryce in Sophomore Focus class.

"Then we were in homecoming court together this year, and we started saying hello' in the hallways, and he called me his best friend. He made me things for my locker and my fridge — he's very artistic," Jewett said.

In April, Jewett was in the cast of "Snowflakes," a play by the high school theater department about accepting others with differences, including autism. A video of Bryce in his room, covered with photos of Selena, opened each performance.

"His front door has a sign he made himself that says, Selena Gomez stop here,'" Jewett said. "I just thought how cool it would be for him to get to meet her."

Mandy Commons said Bryce has been a fan of the pop celebrity since watching the sitcom "The Wizards of Waverly Place" and being introduced to the magazine Teen Bop.

"The sign on our door will stay there forever," she said.

After asking permission from his mother, Jewett created a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/projectdreambryce, a Twitter account, @ProjectDreamBC, and uploaded an extended-length video using full footage taken for "Snowflakes" to YouTube at ProjectDreamBC.

"I just told her I wanted to help make his dream come true," Jewett recalled.

Within nine hours on April 24, the project's Facebook page had 319 likes; Sunday, it had 866.

Other students quickly got on board to help create attention to the effort by sending letters to television show host Ellen DeGeneres, known for frequently making dreams come true, that include the national logo for autism.

Jewett, a standout student and athlete, said Bryce has expressed worry that people will get busy after high school and forget about him.

"We won't," Jewett said. "We'll keep at this after high school. Because no matter what, Bryce is never going to stop wanting to meet Selena."

His mother, who just last week received papers in the mail that grant her guardianship of Bryce, is grateful.

"We're blessed. This class is — the whole high school — is concerned about our feelings and protective of Bryce. It's amazing," she said. "What we're thinking about with Bryce right now, like what comes next, is very different than what other parents are planning. Getting that paperwork, it was kind of hard to take. Part of me feels cheated on life."

"But we're also defying the odds in that he's even graduating from high school. It's a huge milestone. And ending it this way, with everyone rallying around, is really special. It brought tears to my eyes that they are that caring."

This summer, Bryce Commons will begin working with John Lair at New Hope on participation in Special Olympics, said his mother, Mandy Commons. She also plans to help Bryce further his artistic talents, begin a regular daily exercise routine, and work on gardening projects at their home.

"We'll figure out what he likes best and really get a long-term plan for him," she said. "I want to find out what makes him happy."

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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