In one room I saw glimpses of my past, my present and perhaps even my future. In one room emotions of despair, relief, happiness, sadness, frustration, anxiety and hope filled the air. Yet the din of the room carried the one thing that we all needed. Acceptance. In a room where there were no judgements, unwarranted advice, weird stares or unkind remarks. This is TDF Autism Friendly production of the Lion King.
This was our first production on Broadway and I didn’t know what to expect. I brought my sister for back up in case one of my sons needed to leave and the other wanted to stay. We read the social story on the Lion King on Broadway in preparation. Years of planning have come down to this one moment. So there we were waiting for the curtain. My youngest was jumping out of his seat and my oldest was covering his ears because of the noise. Yet when the curtain rose, they were both mesmerized almost instantly and I was instantly mesmerized by them. Don’t get me wrong, the show was spectacular but most of the time my gaze was directed towards my boys. My heart was filled with joy and silent pride to see them sit and attend, and more importantly to enjoy the moment.
Years ago, when the house was silent except for the sound of clapping from one and the repetitive singular nonsensical sounds from the other it was easy to slip into a mindset of hopelessness, frustration and depression. The word Autism reverberated in my mind like the itchy tag behind a new shirt. I can’t remember the exact moment when I decided that my boys will be more than just a diagnosis and I don’t think it can be singled down to just one moment. It was an accumulation of emotions and experiences that made me not want to give up. With little to no eye contact, those rare times our eyes met I felt them say, don’t give up on me.
A diagnosis will not stop me from believing in their infinite potential and introducing them to the the beauty of arts, enlightenment of science or the enrichment of history. A diagnosis will not stop them.
Getting to the point of being able to sit for an entire show wasn’t a swift process, but nothing worth doing comes easy. We spent countless time, energy (and money) going to local shows. Here’s how that went - spent entire time in hallway, in the back of the room, standing by the door, sleeping or just sitting on my lap with their head hiding in my arms. Throughout this, people can be nasty, callous and just plain cruel. Some were well meaning with their advise; others were simply condescending. Shrug it off. Don’t give up on me. Strangers’ stares with conveyed disdain and disapproval. Don’t give up on me. The snarky remake about how I can’t control or discipline my children. Don’t give up on me. Yet we continued, on and on, in addition to all our endeavors. So we move forward and on, going to show after show until they were able to sit through a show and actually enjoy it. In time they, were able to sit for 10 minutes of the show, then 30, then 45, until eventually the entire show. Had I given up after the first harrowing experience, I would have stolen future opportunities for them to enjoy a variety of performances. Witnessing their delight and hearing their laughter at a comedic moment in a play always fills my own heart with exhilarated joy.
Another difficulty I ran into at times (ok more often than not), was that both boys are so different and required different things at different times, so if one had a meltdown at a show, the other had to leave as well. It would have been easy to ask someone to join me but how many people would want to go knowing that the chances of them enjoying the show was nearly zip. I learned early on that this was going to be a lonely journey; suddenly friends fall through the wayward and always too busy (this is another blog altogether). I relied heavily on my family. I also relied on the boys therapists and teachers who have now subsequently become part of my family.
I took this endeavor of introducing the boys to the arts because it was a learning experience for me as well. Learning how to go out alone with two boys on the spectrum and learning to deal with the ignorance of people can’t be taught. It’s a lesson that needs to be experienced; a valuable learning experience for everyone. Why should they miss out just because of a few sensory issues and a multitude of ignorant strangers.
Today, they enjoy the theater. So much so, they wanted to try being in the theater. Two boys who may get anxious in social settings are now on stage, acting, singing and dancing. They are calm and nonchalant without any indication of stage fright. Of course it helps to have great coaches. We are so fortunate to have found Dream Makers in Long Island, NY where they are in a typical class with great group of peers. At Dream Makers they have performed in two plays thus far with actual lines. That’s what I like about this place; they give each child a speaking part, and not just one or two lines, but rather an actual time on stage with plenty of lines. Dream Makers gave my boys their chance to shine and shine they did.
I am still in awe at watching the boys get ready for a play or attending acting class. I asked them “what makes being on stage with an audience watching you so different than going into a crowded room or party?” One tells me, “It’s just different, I get to pretend to be someone else and I know what to say and when to say it”. The other says, “I don’t notice the audience, I just like being on stage. I get used to the way things are in rehearsals and I always know what happens next”.
Besides being an extremely proud mom, I think to myself how far they have come. I will never give up. Our journey is not done, not be a long shot. There are still struggles to overcome and more to face. However, we have been so fortunate to work with exceptional teachers and therapist starting from early intervention and at present, to continue to work with extraordinary teachers, I am forever grateful for these teachers and therapist whose dedication and commitment to the success of the children is remarkable. It has not been as easy journey and I don't anticipate it to get any easier, but it is a journey worth taking.
Fast forward, years later, I took them to the opera (I too, live dangerously). The Magic Flute by Mozart, the composer that they loved listening to at bedtime. I got balcony nosebleed seats near an exit in case we had to make a run for it. They both had one complaint - mom you need to get better seats next time.