Over a decade ago, the Youth Minister at our church rallied a team to host a Joy Prom. A prom for the special needs community. An opportunity for them to not only feel special, but to get dressed up, pampered like royalty, and dance the night away. All in a safe environment where they wouldn’t feel different but accepted whether they were in a wheelchair, used braces, or had their own one-of-a-kind rhythm. We took Jacob the first couple of years. He was able to spin, twirl, and dance to the music with people nearby but still giving him space. As great events do, the crowd grew and quickly it went from a few dozen attendees to around 500. Isn’t that amazing? I love how students, their parents, teachers, and more all come together to make it such a wonderful night. They think of everything with careful attention to detail and the honorees love every minute. It brings them so much JOY!
Fast forward to this year, the theme was Glow the Night Away and Joy Prom was in its 12th year. We decided to give it a go and take Jacob. Late that afternoon, I went back to his room and told him we were going dancing. He jumped up and wanted to hear more. I showed him some clothes I thought he could wear. (Some of the guys wear suits or even a tux. However, that is not Jacob’s style.) He could not have been more cooperative as I got him dressed and his hair combed. He was obviously excited. And was lookin’ gooooood! Then, while I got ready, he sat in our bedroom waiting patiently to go dancing. He was happy. I was happy. We were all happy.
When we got to the church, he hopped out of the van and took Mike’s hand, ready to go dancing. As we approached the check-in location, we could see the line was long. And getting longer by the minute as vans and buses dropped off attendees. We had intentionally arrived a little late hoping to avoid a long wait. Because it is next to impossible to stand in a slow-moving line with Jacob, Mike walked around outside trying to keep him occupied until we could get in. We left his wheelchair at home thinking he would want to be able to twirl and dance. Lesson learned, we can only wait in a line if he is secured in his chair. One attentive volunteer realized that we couldn’t keep Jacob in the registration line and asked how she could help. I didn’t have an answer but appreciated the offer! I slipped in another door and asked about bypassing the check-in and photo booth set-up altogether. Originally I had hoped (unrealistically) to get a picture of Jacob at the really cute photo booth. However, I wanted more for Jacob to get into the dance area and hear the music.
After waiting a few more minutes, a dear friend came out and motioned for us to come in. We were handed fun glow-in-the-dark bracelet/necklaces but Jacob wasn’t interested in sporting any accessories. The large room was PACKED! There were tables with chairs on either side and the middle section was shoulder to shoulder people dancing their hearts out. It was dimly lit (making the glow stuff look really cool), the music was loud, and there were probably 500 people in the event room. Unfortunately, Jacob was interested in only one thing, getting out as fast as he could. I quickly tried to take his hands and dance. Not having it. We managed to get from one door to another across the room in probably a minute and he was done. He was frustrated and showed it. The only thing we could do was make our way out and leave.
On the way home, we stopped and got him one of his favorites – fast food hamburgers. I wondered if he was disappointed in the evening. He had been so excited about dancing and so cooperative until we actually got there. He really had no idea of what to expect and wasn’t prepared for the crowd. I know I was disappointed. Probably way more than him. I love, love, love, that our church (and other organizations) host a prom for those that can’t or weren’t able to attend one in high school. I see what a big deal it is for so many. They get dressed UP! Hair done, manicures, the works. It makes my heart so happy. I so wanted Jacob to have that experience and was really bummed that we didn’t last five minutes at the Joy Prom.
Autism steals so much when it comes to socialization. It is flat out hard for Jacob to be around a lot of people. When our home is full of guests, he can retreat to his bedroom. When he is in his day program, he can get away from the group and hang out in his own space. I was sad and felt a pity party coming on. And then, as Mike always does, he helped me change my perspective to look at it another way. He commented that he had felt like Jacob because the crowd was even too much for him. Thankfully Mike didn’t yank a guys glow-in-the-dark necklace off, like Jacob did! He noted that an introverted person would not have enjoyed being tossed into that atmosphere. And he was right. I hadn’t thought of Jacob as introverted but everything points to that. Autistic or not, he is withdrawn and sometimes a room full of people just becomes overwhelming and draining. Mike said, “it’s okay that he wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of friends, he has us.” That is all I needed to hear. He.Has.Us. We can have our own dance party.
Was going to the Joy Prom a waste of our time? No. 1) Showing up was one way of saying thank you to the hundreds of volunteers that give their time to set up, decorate, direct traffic, provide food, chaperone, work, work, and work some more. 2) A number of our friends that never get to see Jacob, got to speak to him. I loved that and so did they. 3) A teacher Jacob had in elementary school, who hadn’t seen him in 30 years, got to talk to him. 4) I enjoying seeing several of the guys and gals, who are Jacob’s peers, all ‘gussied’ up. And, 5) Jacob looked so handsome and exhibited more patience that usual. He tried, so did we, and I’m glad we did.
At home that night, Jacob asked for an ice cream sandwich on his Go Talk. I was so proud of him because the easier thing for him is to open the freezer and point to one. That alone was cause for a celebration. So, I got one of him and one for me and we sat together having a great time. It’s funny how ice cream makes everything better.