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Maynard teen with autism asks Ellen DeGeneres to prom, while town cheers him on

Posted by boston.com  February 3, 2014 01:15 PM

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Esteban Rueda, 17, stands with a white board where his classmates wrote all of the reasons why Ellen DeGeneres should go to prom with him.

After winter break, thoughts of prom season can bring stress and drama to high school students. There can be a lot of pressure to ask a date to the big dance in a creative way, but this year, at least one student, Esteban Barriga of Maynard High School, won't disappoint. Barriga, a 17-year-old senior with autism, is asking his dream date, Ellen DeGeneres, to prom with the help of a YouTube video starring himself and the citizens of Maynard.

Word spread of the video around town after Maribel Rueda, Barriga's mother, reached out to friends and her son's school about his dream. Barriga's high school classmates and teachers, the fire department, police department, local McDonald’s, and more rallied behind him and made over thirty video clips for the project, all urging Ellen to “say yes to Esteban.”

Before Barriga settled on the daytime talk show host as his date, he did not want to attend the dance.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to prom because I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anybody,’” Rueda said. “It broke my heart.”

Now, Barriga has a whole town behind him.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience because here’s this kid who thought he had no friends at high school, who thought he was on his own—now he’s suddenly the most popular kid in school,” Rueda said.

Aubuchon Hardware in Maynard is one of the local businesses that decided to help out.

“We see people all day long and we figured it was a good thing to do,” said John Bairos, store manager. “I don’t particularly know the kid but I know a lot of kids that work for me, and some of them know him … The more publicity, the better the chance he has of accomplishing it.”

Bryan Kiley, a Maynard High junior, filmed all of the clips at the high school. He met Barriga last year in gym class, where the two played basketball together every day. This year, Kiley decided to sign up for Best Buddies at the high school, a local chapter of a global organization dedicated to creating friendship and supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and requested to be Barriga’s buddy because they got along so well.

“He’s always funny; he’s always smiling,” Kiley said of Barriga. “He’s always in a good mood and puts people in a good mood.”

Kiley filmed whole classes saying “Ellen, say yes to Esteban!” and also interviewed individual students for the video.

“A lot of people thought it was a really cool thing and really wanted to see it happen,” Kiley said.

Barriga loves to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show every day. His three dreams, according to his mom, are to be an actor, meet Jimmy Fallon, and go to prom with Ellen. A spokesperson for the show could not immediately be reached.

“He’ll say ... ‘Mom, she’s so funny!’” Rueda said.

The experience has especially touched Rueda because they have only been living in the town for a year.

“In high school, [students with autism] are bullied, they’re excluded … they don’t have many friends,” she said. “They’re outcasts, if you will. I hate using that word but it’s true. For me as a mother, to see the response Esteban is getting, says a lot about the place I moved to.

“It was the best decision I made, to move,” Rueda said. “It completely changed my life and Esteban’s life. We have never been so welcome in a town.”

As a volunteer with Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization, in Latino communities around Boston, Rueda knows Barriga might not have much to look forward to after high school. He will attend graduation this year but will stay in school until he is 22. After that, “his life is very uncertain,” Rueda said. “You lose a lot of services you usually have.”

Because of that, the video ends with a reminder about the often-forgotten adults living with autism. Mariana Barriga, Esteban’s 7-year-old sister who narrates the video, ends by asking Ellen to help spread autism awareness so teenagers like her brother, who will eventually become adults, have a place to go after prom.

“Whether Ellen says yes or no I think my son will not have a problem going to prom,” Rueda said. “I think he’s learning a lot form this. He’s learning he’s not alone.”

To learn more about the effort, visit Esteban's Facebook page here.

Maggie Quick can be reached at margaret.quick@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MaggieQuick.

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