Ryan’s fifth grade dance had a carnival theme. Face painting, ring toss, stick your face in a hole and take a picture of yourself as a clown, sand art, snow cones. The kids jumped around the school’s all-purpose room to pop songs played by the world’s loudest DJ while Ryan and his bestie clapped their hands over their ears.
For most of the kids this was a drop-off affair – ten of the girls actually got picked up at the end in a white stretch freaking limo. Stu and I provided a bare minimum of support for Ryan. At first this meant walking into the school with him, pointing him in the direction of games, letting him cover his ears with our hands (sometimes one’s own hands just don’t cut it, I guess). A group of girls approached Ryan and said hi; we alerted Ryan to their presence and encouraged him to say hello.
We watched from afar as Ryan stood awkwardly near some boys who were playing some sort of ball game – positioning himself between children who were throwing and catching but not in a way set him up to participate. Then, we witnessed the magic of Inclusion as the boys took him by the arm and patiently showed him where to stand and how to play, going so far as to put the ball in his hands and encourage him to throw it to a particular kid.
I had to excuse myself for a moment.
By the second half of the evening he was navigating the party mostly on his own. Eventually Stu and I positioned ourselves outside the main entrance, watching kids put their empty cotton candy cones on their heads and declaring themselves to be narwhals, and scolding the occasional child to get out of the parking lot. A PTA mom manned a hairspray station, coloring kids hair in various unnatural and glittering colors on demand.
Ryan had a glorious time in his own way. He played carnival games and won tons of prizes (pencil sharpeners! fancy straws! scented bookmarks!). He drank lemonade – something he has never previously enjoyed. He tasted cotton candy, scrunched up his face in confusion and asked, “Is this food?”
Then, in a move that truly stunned both of us, Ryan asked the PTA mom to spray his hair blue. This is a child who has zero tolerance for marker on his fingers or any sort of makeup on my face, a child who will freak out if someone has a zit and will not cover it with a bandaid. But there he was, delighting in having sparkly blue hair. Later he returned and insisted on having red sprayed on top of the blue “to make purple.”
Things were exceeding our expectations until the final moment of the party, when the DJ called off the winning raffle number (I have no idea what was being raffled). It seems that Ryan does not understand how raffles work, and was devastated that “they did not remember my number!” Averting a meltdown, the PTA mom exchanged Ryan’s raffle ticket for most of a can of green hairspray.
I’m proud of how much Ryan has grown in the last three years, and tremendously proud of his neurotypical classmates, who go out of their way to be kind to him and include him even when no teachers are watching them.