WAKE FOREST — Chandler Foster was nervous while he watched the minutes in the first half of Heritage High School’s homecoming football game tick by on Friday.
Five minutes before the end of the second quarter: That’s when he was supposed to make his way to the sidelines to line up with the other kids in the homecoming court.
Chandler, 17, told the schedule to his mother, to his friend Eddie Manville, to his sister, Abigail – and to anyone else, really, who happened to say hello.
“It’s just that I’ve never done this before,” he said with a quick smile, his blue eyes wide. He wore a new jacket and a new blue-and-white striped tie: Huskies’ colors. He cheered along with the crowd in the student section while keeping one eye on the clock.
Finally, it was time. Chandler, the boy whose parents had once thought a night like this could never happen, walked quickly to the track. A volunteer gave him a sash and a boutonniere and told him he looked handsome. Still nervous, he asked what he was supposed to do if they called his name, and he asked again, too, just to be sure.
Then Chandler waited to find out if he would be king.
Paula and Don Foster learned that their son, Chandler, had autism when he was 2 years old. It meant reordering their expectations about how life would unfold for him.
OK, they thought: He won’t have his license; he won’t be on the football team; he won’t have the kinds of friendships most kids do.
But Chandler, now a junior, surprised them. He got his learner’s permit this summer. He’s part of the sports medicine group at school, and he helps at every junior varsity football practice and home game. He also asks questions politely when he meets someone new.
Chandler is completing the occupational course of study at Heritage, an alternative program mostly for students with developmental disabilities, and he’s interested in the Beyond Academics program at the UNC-Greensboro. He thinks he would like to be a camp counselor so that he can help other kids.
“I don’t think you really know when they’re younger what the potential is,” Paula said. “I never thought so many years ago that we would be doing this.”
She cautions that every kid with autism won’t follow the same path as Chandler. They’ll have different difficulties and different levels of achievement. But she does thinks her son is a reminder that people with autism have a lot to offer the world.
The members of the sports medicine group are the ones who nominated him for king. Like everyone else, the students say they gravitate toward him because of his sweet nature and willingness to help anyone at any time.
“He honestly makes my day, every day,” said Jena Crabtree, a senior at Heritage.
During halftime, representatives from every school club filed out to midfield, followed by the homecoming court, one boy and one girl per pair, with their arms locked. Chandler had practiced the move with his mother the week before.
The students on the court fidgeted in the cold under the lights while an announcer introduced them. Then, the moment they had been waiting for arrived
The announcement called the name of the homecoming queen: Madison Shatilla, 16, a cheerleader and a senior.
A few minutes later the announcer’s voice boomed, “Chandler Foster!” and the crowd erupted into cheers for their homecoming king.
Chandlers eyebrows shot up and his hands waved at his sides.
“That’s me,” he mouthed and walked to the edge of the field, just the way he had been told.
He got a second boutonniere and a crown. The girls from the sports medicine group rushed to congratulate him. Abigail, 15, who had handed out Post-it notes urging her fellow students to vote for her big brother and best friend, cried.
Chandler took pictures with his family and high-fived the school’s mascot. He smiled as shouted congratulations came from all directions.
“I’m just shocked,” he said. Back in the stands, he took a photo of himself, sent a text to his mother sitting in the row in front of him, and placed his crown gently on Eddie’s head.
Chandler didn’t say anything about what it means that his high school would elect a homecoming king with autism, whether it’s important that he has a place at Heritage or how this moment might look years from now.
But he made sure to mention that he’s the only student from his occupational studies program to be named to the court so far. It’s a good thing, he said, not seeming to doubt that there would be others.
“I’m the first,” he said, as he straightened his crown and turned his attention back to the game.