My 16-year-old son with autism recently participated in his second high school musical theater performance as a member of the ensemble. This was not just your typical, run-of-the-mill production. The kids in our high school theater program are so incredibly talented that many of the high school musicals blow away our local community theater and touring companies. The cast, the pit, the crew, the dedicated teachers who direct and choreograph, the set and the costumes looked like they belong in a theater in New York City, not in a Pennsylvania high school performing arts center. And there among them was my son, the teenager who struggles to fit in most places, except on that stage.
On opening night I sit in the audience in awe of all of it. The show, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” runs for 5 days and of course I go to all five performances. Every night I swear this is the night I will watch the entire scene and not just focus on Ryan in the scenes he is in, but I can’t seem to take my eyes off him. I sit mesmerized and in awe with a big, stupid grin on my face and everyone else on the stage disappears.
With every costume change I see the little boy who melted down when the seasons changed and it was time for a different coat. With every beautiful choreographed, spot-on dance move, I see the little boy who ran with an awkward, unbalanced gait. With every perfect note that comes out of his mouth I see the little boy who couldn’t find his words to tell me if he was hurt, angry, scared or sad. With every photo he poses for with cast mates, I see the little boy who always played alone.
I try, I swear, to watch the rest of the cast, the leads who work tirelessly learning all their lines, songs and dance moves, but, there, in the ensemble, is my son singing, dancing, smiling and honestly almost unrecognizable from the teenager I see struggle to understand the world off the stage. Yes, I realize, he has a phenomenal memory so knowing where he is supposed to be on that stage and exactly what he needs to do is easy for him. I also know that with the gift of perfect pitch, hitting the right note in each and every song for him takes little effort too. And yes, I get that having a script to follow allows my son the confidence to behave or “act” a certain way that he knows is “right” and will not be dejected for getting it wrong. But still, there is this magnetic pull that does not allow me to disengage.
From my seat in that performing arts center, I am transported back to a time where I never could have imagined this scene being played out before me which makes every note, every dance step, every confident bow all the more glorious. And this, is why I can’t look away.
For many of you walking a similar path with older kids or adult children, I know you get it. I texted my best friend who didn’t know Ryan when he was little and really, really struggled. I told her I would love to take her back in time so she could meet that same little boy I speak of and really, truly see how far he has come, but, also, so she could remind me (when I need it) just how far he will go.
Kate Hooven is a Central PA mom to three children, Kyle, Ryan and Emma. Her middle child, Ryan, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, an autism spectrum diagnosis) when he was 6; she stresses that anything she shares online, she does with Ryan’s permission. You can follow Kate here on her Keeping It Real blog; you can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website, The AWEnesty of Autism.