Education

Circus-themed prom brings together students with autism spectrum disorder

Prom Queen Lisa Sprung, center, of Miami Coral Park Senior High on the crowded dance floor at a special prom for those with autism spectrum disorder at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. School Board member Mari Tere Rojas, in background, is dancing along with the students.
Prom Queen Lisa Sprung, center, of Miami Coral Park Senior High on the crowded dance floor at a special prom for those with autism spectrum disorder at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. School Board member Mari Tere Rojas, in background, is dancing along with the students. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

In the morning, Lillian Herrera Vasques’ mother does her makeup in shades of soft pink. Then, she blow-dries her hair. At 9 a.m., she’s ready for prom.

“I like to dance,” the 16-year-old said, flaring the skirt of her pink dress. “Red is my favorite color, but this is pretty.”

For students with autism spectrum disorder, prom can be overwhelming. To make this milestone event possible, high schools across Miami-Dade County joined forces to host a prom experience with them in mind.

Miami-Dade County Public School’s seventh annual prom for students with ASD was held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center. The circus-themed celebration was attended Tuesday by over 400 students dressed to impress and dance the morning away.

The lights in the ballroom were dim to limit sensory exposure. Some students self-regulated the amount of noise by using headphones. Some were accompanied by their paraprofessionals and family, and a quiet room was available if they needed to step out and relax.

“They can be themselves and enjoy as themselves,” said Angela Torres, instructional supervisor of the office of autism support.

Helping to make the event possible were sponsors Heff Jones, Autism Speaks and more. Since the first annual prom for students with ASD, Fox-Mar has helped students take the perfect prom pictures.

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Prom Queen Lisa Sprung of Miami Coral Park Senior High raises her arms after being crowned queen at a prom for autism spectrum disorder prom at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

North Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Natalie Sanz said prom is a great way to celebrate the students’ hard work.

“They deserve it just like everyone else,” she said. “People should throw away the stigma.”

The event is a culmination of the year’s social curriculum, which includes giving compliments and greetings, Sanz said. To practice, students go to restaurants in their communities. Prom is where they can put their year’s practice to use in a large setting.

“There are 4,300 students in the district who are on the spectrum and 830 of them have to be in separate classes,” said Ava Goldman, administrative director of Exceptional Student Education and Student Support.

“This event is geared towards those students in separate classes,” Goldman said.

Students from each school nominated two students for prom king and queen, and the winning pair are randomly selected.

When Lisa Sprung of Miami Coral Park Senior High School was announced as prom queen, her friends chanted her name as she ran to accept her crown. The prom king was Kiano Crossgill, from North Miami Senior High School.

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Prom Queen Lisa Sprung of Miami Coral Park Senior High and Prom King Kiano Crossgill of North Miami Senior High School celebrate in front of 400 other high school students at a prom for those with autism spectrum disorder at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Creating the soundtrack to their celebration was DJ Tom DeDios. The students danced to everything from “YMCA” to Drake.

“There's no better reward for a DJ than watching their eyes light up when you play their favorite song,” he said.

This was DeDios’ second year as prom DJ. This time, he brought his son, Thomas, 21.

“These kids are special. If people would be patient, they’d see how great they are,” Thomas DeDios said.

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