This is my first entry in my blog so I wanted to talk about something big from my life. This happened severak years ago, nevertheless it was still a milestone that I hope will move you, the reader, as much as it moved me.
My son wanted to go to the prom. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t be a terribly difficult goal to master: work up some courage, ask a girl and go to the prom. But Adam is autistic, which means that none of the normal milestones of high school came easy, if they come at all.
Autistic kids generally want what everybody wants, love, understanding, to drive a car, get a job, go to the prom. Because of their communication difficulties, getting these things can border on the impossible. Often, it is up to those of us who love them to try and smooth the way, to make some of these desires come true.
So when Adam said, “I want to go to the prom.” I was the one who felt that small frisson of panic. Adam’s faith was absolute.
When I was in school, the Special Ed kids were called, “SPEDS” and were either ignored or tormented by the general school population. I remember once in middle school, some boys persuaded a Down’s Syndrome girl to pull the fire alarm. She was so easy to humiliate. Wanting to belong, to please them, she pulled the alarm. Everyone was caught. The boys, thank goodness, were suspended. I hope they remember this casual cruelty of childhood and shrivel up inside. The girl was made to sit on a bench during a lunch period. I, just thirteen and insecure myself, walked quickly by, averting my eyes while she sobbed like a two year old.
That was a long time ago. Now, special needs kids may have a life-skills homeroom but are included as much as possible in the general school population. Today, kids seem to be much more tolerant and understanding of kids such as Adam. They don’t fear being made fun of for their acts of kindness towards those who are different. The girls at Adam’s high school were so sweet to him, but more as a pet, a little brother. He loved them all but had no way of understanding that no matter how compassionate they were, they could not be expected to sacrifice their one and only senior prom to take him.
We want to help our children, to save them from hurt and disappointment. For that time, my life was all about getting Adam to his senior prom. First I tried to arrange for all the Special Ed seniors to go in a group. Some parents, afraid of the rejection possibilities, didn’t even tell their children about the plan. One girl wanted to go but not with the group. She wanted to be really special. Her brother was taking her and for one night, she could be like everyone else. This is not unusual. Special Ed kids want to be like everyone else. Adam didn’t fall in love with the girls in his class. He fell in love with the girls in the regular school.
Then Adam and his friend Max (also autistic) were going to go stag just assuming they could dance with any girl they asked. They had no idea how to actually ask a girl to dance. They had no conception of her possible rejection or of her boyfriend’s possible annoyance. I had nightmare visions of that Down’s Syndrome girl. Max’s mother was as anxious as I was. My ex-husband wasn’t taking it very calmly either.
Still, life goes on and, at this impasse, I went to interview Carol for a writing project of mine that had absolutely nothing to do with kids, proms or autism. Carol is a nun and I am not Catholic but she generously agreed to share her knowledge with me. It took no special insight for Carol to see that my mind was not on the interview. She asked a few questions and before too long, the whole story poured out, my fears, my sadness, my broken heart, broken dreams, every thing that I had wanted for Adam that he will never have. And, the prom.
Never underestimate what can be done when a group of nuns decides to back you up. They are very determined women. Before the day was over, Sister Carol had called the directresses of two local Catholic girl’s schools. By the end of the week, one of the directresses, Sister Jane had spoken with her student, Brittany, who has an eight-year-old autistic brother. Brittany thought taking Adam and Max to the prom was cool and asked her friend Sally to help her out.
Adam’s dad fitted him for a tux. His stepmother bought corsages. Brittany and Sally had their own dresses. Max’s mom and I treated Adam, Max, Brittany and Sally and Brittany’s mom to dinner. The restaurant that never takes reservations, set aside a big table and treated these kids like kings and princesses.
I pinned the corsages on Brittany and Sally. Such a small thing, pinning a corsage, but in a way, it embodied all of the limits in Adam’s life. These beautiful girls glowed with promise and possibility. I hoped they could handle these two boys, jumping out of their skins with excitement.
I drove them all to the prom, fretted like a midwife for a few hours and picked them up. Adam and Max had the time of their lives. They had evidently developed quite a talent for eccentric dancing. For Brittany and Sally, it had been a privilege to dance at the prom with Adam and Max.
How times change. I can’t imagine such a thing happening at my senior prom. At the end of the day, all the adults tried to recover from their respective nervous breakdowns.
That was many years ago. Adam now lives at a wonderful independent living community. We call it life-skills college so that he would feel that normalcy of leaving home like all his friends. He is learning to live independently, without me. He’ll live longer than I will. His father and I have to set him up where we know he will be cared for long after we are gone. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done.
Adam’s prom was the last milestone of his childhood. He is protected at the community, but I can no longer shelter him from the world, from pain, disappointment, rejection. In reality, I never really could. Ready or not, he is a man.