At the end of May, when Nat was 19, I learned that his school would be having a prom, for the first time in its history. Terese, Nat’s teacher, told me with breathless excitement another wonderful thing: the boys would be getting tuxes! Ever the romantic, I immediately conjured up images of debonair Nat, dressed in crisp black and white. And I wondered: how would he feel, dressed up like that? Would he understand how special it was? I really hoped so.

Terese assured me that as a class they would go over what a prom was and what to expect, so they would be able to fully appreciate it. The kids would be encouraged to dance together; the school is all-autistic, so the kind of gregarious behavior associated with proms was not something that would come naturally to any of the students. No problem to Terese, however; she would teach them with social stories, which would outline behavior, step-by-step, such as how to ask someone to dance.

The anticipation of the prom made me starry-eyed for a few weeks, and I bragged to everyone that Nat was going to the prom. I wanted the whole world to celebrate the dream with me, the fact that this very disabled boy had come so far. I was also so impressed that his school had evolved to such a capable and humane level that they could offer such a wonderful experience to the kids. Every now and then I checked in with Terese, and then the residence staff to see how it was going with the prom planning. All was well. The boys would be visited by a tuxedo store at the nearby mall, and they would be fitted. They would also pick out their own colors.

A week before the prom I started to ask Nat all about it, to gauge whether he knew about this upcoming event. “Are you going to wear special clothes for the prom, Nat?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“What colors are you wearing, Nat?”

“Yelloworange,” he said, as if it were one word.

At the time I thought this answer meant he had chosen a yellow or orange cummerbund and tie. Now, however, I realize that he was telling me what he was wearing at the moment (a yellow T-shirt). Because of his language comprehension difficulties, Nat tends to think completely in the present. Sometimes, with his lack of conversational references to the past or future, he seems almost Buddhist in his immersion in the moment.

The morning of the prom I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to take pictures of Nat in his tux. I called the residence to ask what color boutonniere I should get him. But the house manager told me there were no tuxes. “It didn’t work out,” she said sorrowfully.

What?! Disappointment shot through my veins like poison. I tried to restrain my emotions, and quickly got off the phone. No tux. Yellow and orange tie? Not going to happen. After all that anticipation, it would be just a regular party. And Nat would be denied one more rite of passage that every teenager gets.

I was furious. If I had known this would happen, I would have taken him myself to a tuxedo store weeks ago! Just like when Nat was younger, I retreated to my “No one can really take proper care of Nat but me” stance. My dull, heavy anger traveled slowly up to my brain, but all of a sudden it sharpened into an idea. I had about four hours before I had to get Nat to the prom. I was damned if he was going there in a tweed jacket and jeans. I was going to get him a tux—now.

I started calling every tux place in the Yellow Pages. But it was too early and on a Saturday. I left frantic messages, “Please call me back if you can help!” I tried every chain that promised any kind of tux on the market. Nothing was open. No one called back.

Finally, I got through to someone. A soft-spoken man answered the store phone, and I described Nat’s size. He reassured me right away that they had what we needed. My husband Ned and I wasted no time and we whisked Nat off in the car.

The store was crammed with black suits, smooth and elegant, on white mannequins. I saw row after row of glossy silk vests with bow ties—even a yellow one, which I hoped Nat wouldn’t want, because there was a baby blue one that would be perfect with his eyes.

The man took in all that was Nat without raising an eyebrow. Good; I could not deal with explaining why my son was tromping through his store, waving his arms and shaking his fist, talking to himself in his own language. But I knew what Nat was feeling, because he was walking and talking so fast, wearing a wide grin and bursting into occasional giggles. Nat was clearly happy about the tux store, and perhaps about the entire prom.

Soon Nat emerged from the dressing room in black jacket, pants, and crisp pleated white shirt. I drew in my breath. He looked utterly beautiful, perfect. This was my son, my boy—but he was such a man! I fell in love with him all over again. How blessed we were!

“Oh,” I said, tears in my voice, “you look like a prince.” Ned laughed at me because he loves how overly sentimental I get. I blushed and drew out the baby-blue vest, and as I helped Nat button the stiff buttons, I suddenly heard in my head the words from Sleeping Beauty, one of Nat’s all-time favorite Disney movies. “Why, it’s my dream prince,” I said, imitating Princess Aurora.

I was trying to be light, but I was too overcome with the moment. All the different realizations were bursting like fireworks, one after another: Nat looking so handsome, and princely; the kind, helpful stranger materializing like a Fairy Godfather, with just the right tuxedo at just the right time; Ned and me, old enough to have a son going to the prom. And also, of course, there was autism, right here, all around us—and yet it made no difference.

Nat went off to his prom, and as soon as he saw his housemates and teachers, I think he forgot all about us. They applauded his tux, and he rewarded them with his wide, glorious smile. Most of the other boys had managed to get tuxes, too. One of his best friends had been named Prom King, and was bouncing around with a red velvet crown on his head. I actually felt a moment’s jealousy that it wasn’t Nat, but then I thought, “Well, Nat can’t have everything!” and laughed at myself. But he did have so much, I realized: he now had two homes and he loved them both.


Reprinted with permission from The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide: Creating a Balanced and Happy Life while Raising a Child with Autism by Susan Senator, copyright © 2010 by Susan Senator, published by Trumpeter Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Boston (www.shambhala.com).

 

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