By: Elayne Pearson, CAS, and proud parent of an autistic daughter
Most mothers confess their child’s Junior Prom is something she looks forward to with pride and joy. For me, dreaming about the magical night with a formal dinner and dance for Miss Heidi Ann brought fear and dread. Bless her heart, even though Heidi was in high school, she was in Special Education, and was well behind her peers in most basic levels. “Prom” would be very tricky.
Part of me wondered if I should forget the whole thing and just let this dream fade like I had so many others. I knew if I didn’t initiate some intervention her prom could be an unforgettable disaster, not only for her, but her “date” and her classmates. As I realized her limitations with large crowded rooms, dim lighting, and unfamiliar social situations I became pretty uneasy. Then, when I thought about her trying to dance throughout the night with some boy, I became even more disillusioned. When I realized the loud and unfamiliar modern music and flashing mirrored-ball-lights would probably drive her absolutely crazy — I quit. My heart dropped and broke, like Cinderella’s shattered glass slipper.
In spite of Heidi’s significant health improvements, I knew she still had limits and occasional sensory-overload meltdowns, so I opted to divert the devastation.
“We’re not going to put Heidi through all of that, just so I can say she went to the prom,” I vowed to myself in the car. “She doesn’t even know the meaning of the word.” However, I do, and her sisters do, too, I countered silently to myself. Gratefully, Heidi’s dad understands women, and eventually agreed to let me plan a small alternative prom ̶ centered around what she loves and cherishes.
Heidi pretty much referenced life through her beloved children’s video collection, and I knew she loved the classic animation of Disney’s Cinderella. So that became our theme for her special-needs prom – I mean “party.” I reserved a simple event room in a local motel, then mailed cute Cinderella-themed invitations to our family, adding a note indicating this was the equivalent of Heidi’s Junior Prom, and they, too, can dress-up and bring cameras. I bought a couple of large glossy posters of Cinderella and other Disney Princesses to set the tone for our little princess. I envisioned Heidi being the “belle of the ball.” Large pearlized balloons and twisted pastel crepe paper streamers would make the room feel festive and pretty, so I picked them up, too.
I was thrilled to find a pale blue chiffon floor-length dress very close to Heidi’s size at a second-hand store. Teresa, a talented friend of mine, helped me alter it for her.
“Hey, Heidi,” I gushed while we were measuring and pinning up the hem of her new dress, “you’re going to dance at a ball ̶ just like Cinderella! The whole family is coming home for this, even Grandma and Grandpa Pearson, and we’re going to wear fancy outfits, too. Dad will be your dance partner ̶ just like Prince Charming in our Cinderella movie.”
I looked forward with great anticipation. Each of Heidi’s older sisters had found true love and were coming home with their handsome husbands and adorable young children. Honestly, our family actually believes in living “happily-ever-after” and we work on small goals every single day.
Heidi’s wonderful care-provider, Netta, helped me decorate the circular tables with pastel table cloths, small framed photos of Heidi, glittering glass snow globes, and we sprinkled pastel M&M candies in-between. Heidi’s large scrapbooks and Special Olympic metals were displayed around the hall. Frankly, I was proud of our difficult journey.
Heidi simply glowed all night long. I could tell she loved having “her” music from her collection of Disney CDs playing while we visited, looked at photo albums, and ate her favorite foods: turkey sandwiches, potato chips, fresh veggies, and watermelon chunks. A lovely cake with pink roses was dessert.
After dinner, the game “Name That Tune” (using only songs from her vast Disney vault) was a big hit. An older relative noticed, “We have all ages and backgrounds here, but everyone’s loving this. Good job, Elayne.”
Using Heidi’s little stuffed Dalmatian toy, we pulled chairs into a circle and played the old–fashioned game, I Have a Little Doggie (“and he won’t bite you!”). People were good sports, fancy dresses and all. I wanted my grandchildren to experience great old parlor games, plus the fantastic feeling dancing to familiar music.
Even though Heidi’s response was “autistically-aloof” when folks validated her, it helped heal my mending heart. We visited, ate, laughed, played, and danced “her” night away.
The highlight of the ball was watching Rod in his handsome black suit move as graceful as a Prince while he danced and swayed with his beloved teenage daughter in her lovely light blue chiffon Cinderella dress. Miss Heidi Ann was the belle of the ball, and it was the “Pearson’s Perfect Prom” indeed.
A month later I discovered a cute pink and white wooden sign that I bought as a beautiful memento of our unforgettable occasion. It read, “My Prince did come . . . his name is Daddy.”
Elayne Pearson, CAS, is a Special Needs Preparedness Specialist, author, and national speaker. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @hiddentreasuresofhealth Email