“Don’t be late Mum. 8:15 pm sharp!”
He lugs his 6ft frame out of the car, slings his bag over his shoulder and heads off into the distance without waiting for me to reply.
8:15 pm rolls around and as I enter the gym hall, I notice all the parents are huddled in groups, chatting animatedly. It occurs to me that I know none of them. 6 years at the same school and I know not a soul. In those six years my son has not received a single invitation to another person’s house.
I tried to get him to invite people to our house, but such is his anxiety, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
This is the reality of Autism.
I stand on the side of the hall watching the 60-odd 16 and 17 year olds practice for their Debutante Ball. It seems a strange tradition to me. We live in Australia and Deb Balls are such an American thing. I stressed, worrying about how he would take it if no-one asked him. But he did get asked and here I am watching him as he 1-2-3 steps around the hall. I can only see him. All else fades away. My heart swells with pride. Without warning a tear emerges from my eye.
“Right guys, please go find your special person!” I love that – special person.
He comes over to get me. Takes my hand. We never touch. My heart is bursting, a thousand fireworks going off inside.
We listen to the instruction. He looks at me in the eye. So many moments of connection. 17 years it has taken to get to this point.
“Are you proud of me Mum? Are you crying?”
I cry. For everything. He knows that. I am overwhelmed with emotion.
“So proud of you my boy,” I manage to whisper.
And now the music is playing and we are dancing around the dance floor. I stumble at first, forgetting which foot to put backwards first.
“Right foot, Mum, your right foot goes back first.”
Soon, we are dancing, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. He is talking to me with excitement. This is a happy place I rarely get to see. The Ball is in four days and he is excited. Not anxious, not grumpy, not thinking about the crowds of people and the expectation. Just excited.
The night of the ball rolls around. As is expected, the excitement was replaced with anxiety, grumpiness, never quitting though. Such determination, such resilience.
He steps out in his suit and coat tails. My heart stops. My eyes leak. I take pictures of him and his older sister – a rare moment.
So many years fighting, working, moving forward, never giving up, even when everyone said he would never socialise, would never finish school, would never be truly included. This. This is his moment. His moment of triumph.
We take him round to his partner’s house. He presents her with the gift he chose for her – a pink crystal pendant on a sterling silver necklace. Photographs. Laughter. I want to scream from the roof how important this is, how amazing this is, how HUGE this is. His father and I look at each other. It’s okay. We know. That is all that matters.
All six of them pile into the limousine. My son, crammed with five other people in the car. He looks nervous, but is smiling.
Later that night we arrive, all dolled up ourselves, to the beautiful hotel. We wait anxiously for his Deb to be announced. He is waiting at the bottom of the stairs for her. He holds out his hand for her. Walks her down the hall. She curtseys, he bows. Can I be any prouder?
The dancing begins. So beautiful, so rhythmic. My eyes are fixed on him as he moves from one step to the next, one partner to the next. I have no words.
Then it is our turn. He comes to collect me and we dance beneath the mirror ball and candlelight. We laugh as people knock into each other. He guides me out of harms way.
The formality ends and teenagers take to the dance floor to the latest songs.
“I’d like to go home now,” he says, “I’ve done what I needed to do.”
We pose for a family photo and head home.
Our journey with Autism has been fraught with difficulties at times, with many highs scattered in between, but this evening saw so many barriers being broken, so much resilience.
I love that my son has Autism. I love that it has taught us all so much. I love that evenings like this night, so small to some – just another excuse for a party – mean so much to us. I love that through our non-connection we are so connected. Autism is my son – how could I not love that?