By Gina Barton of the Journal Sentinel Online.
When Jon Larson was diagnosed with autism more than 16 years ago, his parents formed a mental list of all the things he would never do: Play on the football team. Get married. Go to prom.
But last week, in the gym of Clear Lake High School, Mike and Mary Larson looked on as their 19-year-old son walked arm-in-arm among balloons and colored lights with his prom date, Maddi Colbeth.
Jon's father, band director at the high school, was blown away.
So after the dance on Saturday, he posted a paragraph about Maddi's good deed and a photo of the two teens on his Facebook page. Since then, it has been shared more than 200,000 times and generated half a million likes.
About 200 students attend Clear Lake High in northwestern Wisconsin, near the Minnesota border. A dozen of them have special needs. Several years ago, the cognitive disabilities teacher, Diane Blanchard, started a club to encourage friendships between disabled students and those without disabilities. In addition to meetings at school, they bowl, go to movies and have holiday parties.
That's where Jon and Maddi first got to know each other. The two aren't an item - Maddi has a boyfriend and the severity of Jon's disability makes it impossible for him to discuss his thoughts or emotions. But they are friends, and Maddi thought Jon should have the opportunity to do the things other high school juniors can do.
"It was his junior prom and I felt that I went last year and I was on prom court and I got the chance to experience it and it was really fun," said Maddi, a senior. "I knew he wouldn't have gotten the chance if it wasn't for me asking him, so I thought he deserved the chance to go. I thought he would enjoy that."
Mike Larson has gotten hundreds of messages from more than a dozen countries, the vast majority of them from parents of autistic children who hope someone like Maddi shows up in their kids' lives someday. He's put some of them in touch with Blanchard, so she can help them start clubs like the one at Jon and Maddi's school.
Soon after joining the club, Maddi noticed Jon eating lunch alone and invited him to sit with her. The two of them have had lunch together every day since. He shakes her hand in greeting and she asks him questions to draw him out, even if she already knows the answers: What are you having for lunch? How is the weather outside? How is your day going? When he laughs, she laughs with him, whether or not she's in on the joke.
"He likes someone who will sit and talk to him and have the patience," she said. "He's a calm guy and he's nice. He's funny."
Before inviting Jon to the dance, Maddi asked his father if it would be OK.
"It was a pretty breathtaking moment for me," said Larson, whose other son, Joe, also is autistic.
Larson hesitated before answering, mentally reaching into the pile of "things that would never happen" to retrieve the idea of Jon at the prom.
Maddi misunderstood his silence for negativity and went on, trying to persuade Jon's dad he should be able to go.
Finally, Larson found his voice.
"Maddi," he said, "we would be honored to have you take Jon."
The next day at lunch, Maddi asked Jon to the dance and he said yes, even though she's pretty sure he didn't understand the concept.
The preparations began. From Jon's parents, Maddi learned that his favorite color is orange. Although Maddi is partial to red, she scoured eBay for an orange dress.
His parents bought him a suit with a light orange shirt and darker orange tie, then had him practice wearing them in the days before the dance. Jon had never worn a suit, and they wanted him to be comfortable when the big night arrived.
Maddi made dinner reservations for them and another couple at a restaurant that served Jon's favorite meal: chicken strips, french fries and chocolate milk. They went to the restaurant in advance to meet the waitress who would be working on prom night, so everyone would know what to expect.
Every day at lunch, Maddi talked with Jon about their plans: Are we going to prom? Are we going out for supper? Are we going to dance? Yes, Jon would answer. Yes. Yes.
The week before the dance, she asked him: Jon, what are you going to do this weekend? He answered: I'm going to prom. With Maddi. We are going to dance.
When the day finally arrived, Jon's parents took some pictures at the house. The one of Maddi pinning an orange rosebud on Jon's lapel melts his father's heart every time he looks at it. His parents were a bit apprehensive as Jon and Maddi left, hoping he wouldn't ruin all her planning by getting nervous and demanding to leave the dance after 10 minutes.
But he lasted more than two hours. He was eager to slow dance, putting a hand on Maddi's shoulder and another on her hip as a Lady Gaga song played.
"No, Jon," she instructed, bouncing to the beat. "Dance like this."
After that, she taught him the cha-cha slide and the macarena, talking him through the steps as she demonstrated. The two of them spent most of the evening off in a corner alone, but that was fine with Maddi.
"I wasn't too worried about it," she said. "I was excited because I knew that I was doing something for Jon that nobody else was going to be able to do. I've always wanted to be someone that people would look up to."
It's a tradition at Clear Lake High for the prom to culminate with a grand march around 10 p.m. All the parents can come and take pictures as each couple is introduced.
Jon looked a bit like a deer in the headlights, but he kept his composure. Then he gave Maddi a hug, and his parents took him home.
"It's something I never thought would happen for our family, and not only did it happen, but it's happened in such a beautiful way," Mike Larson said. "And to have it go on and bless the lives of other people is beyond anything I ever could have hoped for. It will be one of the nicest memories of our lives."