School Mascot Gig Helps Shy Autistic Middle Schooler Out of His Shell

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School Mascot Gig Helps Shy Autistic Middle Schooler Out of His Shell
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School Mascot Gig Helps Shy Autistic Middle Schooler Out of His Shell (ABC News)

Seventh-grader Andrese Duke is autistic, and has typically been quiet, shy, reserved and not very social with his peers.

During a parent-teacher meeting at Grand Blanc West Middle School in Michigan, Andrese, 13, noticed the costume for Victor E. Bobcat, the school’s mascot. It drew his attention.

>Raymond Haden, a seventh-grade special education teacher, recalled that Andrese stared at the mascot, then started asking questions about it. Haden and two other teachers who were in the group thought it might be a good idea for the student to don the costume and play the character, and when the eighth-grader who typically wears the costume wasn’t able to make a school event that required the Victor E. Bobcat’s presence, Andrese was asked to step in. Without any hesitation, he agreed.

Seventh-grader Andrese Duke is autistic, and has typically been quiet, shy, reserved and not very social with his peers.

The first time Andrese put on the suit ago he was “a natural,” Haden told ABC News Thursday.

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Since then, every time Andrese plays Victor E. Bobcat at a school game, pep rally or other major event, he displays a self-assurance he never had before he assumed the role, Haden said.

“It’s like he has superpowers,” Haden said of the last five months during which Andrese has played the mascot. “He puts on this suit and there’s not a care in the world, like, he can be as animated as he wants ... he can move around and jump around and give fist bumps, and he just runs with it.”

The confidence when playing the character appears to have transferred to Andrese in his day-to-day life.

“When he’s not in the costume now, he has more confidence in himself to interact with kids, to socially interact with his peer group," Haden said. "I’ve seen him in the science classroom where he’s more willing to raise his hand and participate.”

Andrese’s mother, Adrian Duke, said she was excited when her son got the opportunity to play the school’s mascot because it would give him a chance to have more responsibility at the school.

Andrese was even more excited, she said.

“He was ecstatic," she added. "I mean, he was over the moon.”

Duke added: “He feels as though he’s a celebrity. It gives him a purpose, especially if they’re going to have a pep rally and [he will] put on his costume. He gets excited. He talks about it for days, and he’s become more sociable with his friends ever since he became the mascot.”

Duke -- who said she’s been worried about her son’s social shyness, especially since he's becoming a teenager -- has been amazed at Andrese’s turnaround.

“He’ll go out and he’ll just start mingling with people,” she said. “We went to a skate park and he just started mingling with the teenagers and I just let him be. I walked away and I just, you know, watched him and they were showing him tricks and he was just like a teenager.”

The mascot’s identity is generally a secret -- but the secret may be out since Andrese’s story was first reported on MLive.com

Andrese told ABC News that he only told one of his friends about his new role at school. That friend, he said, congratulated him.

Asked how he felt when he found out he would be Victor E. Bobcat, Andrese replied that “he couldn’t wait until that day.”

As for how he feels in costume?

“I feel great when I put it on,” he said. “I feel really amazing wearing it.”

The confidence doesn’t flag when he hangs up the costume. Andrese said he now felt more confident all the time.

“I can say hi to people. I raise my hand up in class more and start asking more questions and being more social with people,” he said.

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