Prior to going to the concert, I had to promise Ryan I would not cut footloose in the aisle....such a disappointment. I also reminded Ryan he was not allowed to wear jeans or sneakers and he had to wear a collared shirt. Let the battle begin. Ryan complained, yelled and adamantly refused to wear anything but jeans and a Hollister tshirt. He was NOT wearing those horribly "hard and uncomfortable" khaki pants, he was NOT wearing a shirt that "strangles him to death" and he certainly was NOT wearing a pair of dress shoes that his brother wore on "his stupid feet"....twice. The final score....Mom, 2 Ryan, 1. He left the house in khakis, a collared shirt and of course, his beloved bright green sneakers. Sigh. Pick your battles my friends.
A few hours later, I watched my handsome boy run across that stage with his bright green sneakers glowing while tugging and stretching his collar and my heart melted. Once in his assigned position, Ryan immediately scanned the audience for the one face he has no trouble making eye contact with....mine. It didn't take him long to find me and when he did, Ryan made his "trying not to smile face". We see that face quite a bit and I'm not sure why, but AWEnestly, it is very much an awkward, "autismy" facial expression. Ryan looks odd fighting back his smile and the irony is, his natural, genuinely happy smile is big and beautiful.
I once read an article where a neurotypical brother said his autistic brother would be "handsome if he didn't have autism". At first I thought it was kind of mean, but now, I get it. Sometimes Ryan and other kids on the autism spectrum make sort of odd, facial expressions or grimaces. For some kids it may be sort of a tic or a stim that they do in a stressful situation which helps calm them down, but for Ryan I believe it's more a result of what he is "seeing" inside his head. It could be Patrick or Spongebob, it could be Mario or Luigi or it could be Austin Powers or Mini Me (yes, we are bad parents and he is familiar with both those characters and his impersonations of them are uncanny and typically untimely). You never know "where" Ryan is or "who" he is with when he is making these goofy faces, but it is very apparent that he is not "with" you at that particular moment. Temple Grandin, a nationally recognized speaker and author living with autism, describes thinking and seeing the world in "pictures", like there is a constant, full color movie, complete with sound, going on inside her head. So whichever DVR choice embedded in Ryan's brain he chooses at that moment is where he is "at" when he is making odd facial expressions and his "do not fit the moment" goofy noises. On that stage last night, Ryan was probably "seeing" a convicted cowboy in an old western movie being hanged by his tight, strangling shirt collar. It's a wonder his tongue wasn't hanging out.
For the most part, last night Ryan was "at" the concert and I was so grateful. I have seen him perform chorus concerts on three other occasions, but this was his final performance as an elementary school student (insert sniffles and tissues here). The first three songs of the night, Ryan sang like most of the other kids...straight faced and business like. By the time the fourth song, Footloose, rolled around, Ryan must have ran and put on his "Sunday shoes" and had "Louise pull him off of his knees" because that boy cut loose. A handful of kids were doing a choreographed dance routine in front of the other students which I'm sure was cute, but AWEnestly, I have no idea because I couldn't take my eyes off my boy. Ryan's head was bopping to the music, the smile on his face was big and natural, there were no tugs on his deadly, strangling collar...that boy was feeling the music. Music is such a huge part of Ryan and listening to him sing, play the piano, help Dan tune his guitar with his gifted ear and tell me how many notes I miss when I try to sing, is just delightful. Ryan sang his heart out and I loved every second of it (he was also very relieved that I did not cut footloose....as were Dan, Emma and my girlfriend and her family who were sitting next to us).
I believe much of this transformation and confidence in my son is a result of Ryan's new friend accepting him just like he is, quirks and all. Ryan is finally beginning to understand that the right friend will overlook the facial grimaces and the silly scripting noises that are a part of him. This friend seems to understand that occasionally he will have to share Ryan with Spongebob, the Angry Birds or whoever is playing on Ryan's DVR loaded brain. However, I think this friend is kind enough to say, "Dude, that's just weird" and Ryan may finally trust a friend enough to know that this friend is not trying to hurt him, he is trying to help him by being AWEnest. I love this new friend.
As we exited the school, another boy from Ryan's class said, "Bye Ryan, good job tonight" and although Ryan fumbled for the socially appropriate response, he quietly cluttered (not stuttered...Ryan doesn't stutter, his brain just gets cluttered with words as he tries to search for the right ones) out something like, "It was good seeing you this evening." which although sounded like the response of a 50 year old man versus an 11 year old boy, at least Ryan responded. That my friend, is progress.
Yes, Kevin Bacon and his "kick off their Sunday shoes" friends may have transformed a sleepy little Bible Belt town into one giant rave almost 30 years ago, but my Ryan and kids like him are slowly, oh so slowly, transforming the way classmates, teachers and biased, sleepy town folks perceive them. These kiddos don't stand before a town council pleading their case, or skip across the county line to "fit in", they just go about their day being who they were meant to be hoping that one day, the only A word that will matter to people is not found in a diagnostic manual, but found in people's minds and hearts. ACCEPTANCE. After all, if in 1984 we were able to accept high waisted stone washed jeans and the mullet, I think we can accept an odd facial grimace and the occasional cry of an Angry Bird's "eee-hee".