Sometimes, Michelle and I are astounded by what our daughter can do. If you have read back over this blog, you have seen some of the struggles we’ve been through to help her be a well-adjusted, capable if not completely normal young lady. Since we watched the lights go out around the age of three, we’ve advocated, fought, and pushed. There are times we have to remind ourselves where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, she, us, and our family.
Last Saturday, I was one proud dad.
Early on, her therapist suggested that we get her into some sort of physical activity: swimming, karate, and dancing were three examples that were tossed out. Karate was out because Katie is (or at least, was) extremely non-confrontational and low-impact.
We tried dancing. Her first dance school was for jazz dancing, and she enjoyed that reasonably well, though neither Michelle nor I were very comfortable with the costumes or dance steps: I don’t enjoy skimpy outfits or suggestive moves on under-age girls, and in any event Katie – who has difficulty making friends at the best of times – had difficulties with some of the girls. We pulled her from that studio.
I’m not sure how it happened – Michelle should be writing this part – but we ended up enrolling her in an Irish dance school. It was natural: I perform Celtic music, and Celtic culture can be found throughout our home.
The school’s instructor was very competition driven and extremely – even brutally – strict. (I have nothing nice to say about it, so I won’t name the school. Those familiar with Irish dance in Kansas City will know exactly who I’m talking about.)
The hardest part of dancing for someone with Aspergers is coordination: we have difficulties with judging our bodies in space. We can learn, but it doesn’t come easy. Katie also has flat feet, and the constant standing and tight shoes caused her a lot of pain. Katie was frequently banished to the hallway outside the classroom where she got remedial instruction and was left feeling singled out and humiliated. We held out for a year hoping she’d grow into it, but this, too, we had to re-evaluate.
We tried swimming. It went well, and she still greatly enjoys the water but the chlorine exacerbated her asthma so we had to let it go as a frequent activity. We still go recreationally whenever possible, though.
After another year or so, we were made aware that a former student of the other Irish dance school was opening a school of her own, The Driscoll School of Irish Dance. The instructor, Brigid, has a much different teaching philosophy that fosters enjoyment of the activity as well as working toward competition.
From the very start, she met Katie where she was, instead of pushing and prodding her to fit the mold of the school. For the first three weeks, Katie spent a good deal of each class sitting under a table there in the room, too scared to participate, too nervous that should couldn’t fit in. Slowly, gently, Brigid drew her out and Katie started learning how to dance. (Jami is in the same school, about a year behind his sister.)
So, why so proud last Saturday?
The Elders is a Kansas City-based Celtic rock band, quite a big deal in the region. They had a concert Saturday night (St Patrick’s Day night) and the Driscoll School opened for them. The school has several champion dancers as well as beginners and all levels in between, and unlike The Other School, Brigid is not shy about letting all of her dancers perform.
Katie and Jami were the only ones from their age group and class that were there that night. It fell to them alone to dance.
They were introduced as brother and sister, and the audience of 1700 people cheered and applauded and whistled. The noise must have been immense. Terrifying.
Our children went out on stage in front of a packed, 1700 seat theater, and they danced.
They danced, and brought down the house, as we say.
Five years ago, a therapist warned us that we might have to institutionalize our daughter to keep her – and us – safe. We despaired of ever reaching her.
Five years ago, had you told us, “In five years, your autistic daughter will dance reel and jig steps in front of a packed house at the Uptown Theater,” I would have cursed you for suggesting such a cruel joke.
And yet, my girl, who can’t stand to have her hair touched, asked to have it curled into ringlets.
My girl, who hates having anything on her feet if she can help it, laces up her own, form-fitting gillies.
My girl, who hates the feeling of anything sticky on her skin, used roll-on adhesive to hold her socks up.
My girl, who has trouble staying focused on any one task for more than five minutes, practices the steps with her hands as we drive to class.
When not dancing herself at class, she watches the feet of the older dancers, and is dreaming of the day when she can put on the embroidered school dress.