There are so many reasons as to why an autistic child performing in a dance show simply won’t work. The lights, sounds, change of routine, the different people – the amount of people. But for my son, it simply just works.
This weekend he took part in his third dance show ‘Legends’ with his wonderful dance group and I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted from the worry I have building up to it from ensuring that I provide an environment where Joseph feels at ease.
Any parent involved in the world of dance will feel a lot of what I have felt this week, trying to sort costumes and ensuring their child is in the right place at the right time. I’m still trying to pull everything together in the aftermath of my mum’s long stay in hospital, so trying to get Joseph everywhere he needs to be is generally just a struggle.
It’s the end of the summer term and inevitably there is lots going on and to Joseph’s credit he manages it better than I do! A typical day for us is Joseph getting up around 6am, which means after a day at school, an after school club and then a rehearsal it’s a LONG day. I worried that he’d be so tired when he flounced on stage that he’d think “fuck this” and have a lie down. Those that have seen him perform, may wonder why I would think that, but I know that there are times when he attends class he has that very attitude.
His dance teacher understands that there is a need for us to be fluid in the approach we take with Joseph and despite me telling her week on week that she has free rein to give him a metaphorical kick up the arse, she has developed her own relationship with him to get the best out of him.
For the last few years, we’ve agreed that Joseph will sit with me during the performance and he will be collected shortly before any dance he is involved in. I’ve figured this was the best approach as dressing rooms can be noisy, busy and I worry he will get bored. Of course, I’d love him to be a part of the same experience that all of the other children have but this way Joseph gets the best of both worlds.
So whilst all of the parents sat backstage on Thursday, helping to dress the children, I was front of house and got a preview of Friday and Saturday’s performance. I wondered nervously, how Joseph would react to the situation as he has form for getting a little carried away and thinking he is the only performer, snaking his way to the front and freestyling to his heart’s content.
This year was his first show as a ‘junior’ and I was worried that it would be too much of a leap. He finds the classes very long and I have seen the ability of these children; I didn’t want him to be completely out of his depth. I needn’t have worried though as he certainly held his own. Yes there was the usual ball and arse scratching and some freestyling but as Louis Walsh would say, he made the dance his own.
When Friday and Saturday’s performance arrived, I contemplated as to whether he would have peaked too early. After Thursday, he told me he “wasn’t going to dance again” and “wasn’t going to try hard”. Prior to Saturday night’s performance he asked who was coming to see him. This was probably because Friday, he had a lot of support from friends and family. I told him who was coming and he asked “who else?” like the four of us who had turned up wasn’t enough for the star that he thinks he is. At that point I thought, maybe he won’t try tonight because he doesn’t think there is enough people watching him.
I’ve tried offering bribes “you can have some sweets if you try really hard tonight” and then worried that maybe I have pumped him full of E numbers. It’s been scorching hot and I’ve been supplying him with endless drinks and I worried that maybe he would need the toilet at an inopportune moment and potentially miss his dance. I worried that whoever is assigned to collect him, may just simply forget as they also have a million things to think about.
Keeping him still in the audience is becoming more of a struggle as he wants to get up and dance which can be facilitated some days depending on where our seats are but harder on other nights, which is probably hard for Joseph to understand why he can do it on one night but not on another. Maybe next year will be the year we move to that backstage environment and it won’t be as stressful as sitting out front. In my mind, Joseph is missing out on a huge amount of experiences by not being there but I’m sure the reality is something very different and he would no doubt ignore people and have his face in an iPad.
And as much as most of us want everything to be ‘perfect’, I’ve decided I no longer need to tell him to try really hard. I told him to go and have a good time because after all that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
There are things that I probably overthink and other things that I probably take for granted. For example, one minute he’s sat in the audience, the next he’s stood on stage in a costume he’s only seen a couple of days previously, the music starts and I’m expecting him to know what he needs to do. I probably should spend more time talking to him about what costume matches with what song/dance to try and remove any anxieties. Joseph is bound to have those pre-show nerves like most other people isn’t he? He’s completely out of his comfort zone and fighting a number of challenges, socially and emotionally and because he can’t communicate his feelings like others would, I’m guilty of neglecting it. That said, he did actually just get on stage, hear the music and start to dance exactly how he was meant to.
The amount of people who approached me and told me how they enjoyed Joseph’s performance, that they shed a tear, how far he has come, that it’s as if he had always been dancing tap, is overwhelming. I’m asked if I’m proud; I am. I’m proud not just because of his impeccable timing and his ability to dance but I’m proud of how he overcomes everything that literally should be against him to get up there on stage.
On both nights he stayed in his line, something he had never done before. He had remembered his steps and his place. Yes he had his usual nervous tics (and no, he doesn’t need larger pants or the labels cutting out!) but I could see that he had a wonderful time up there. He loves having his exclusive backstage pass where the teachers help him feel at ease whilst he is in their care. He is absolutely desperate to make announcements over the PA system and God help them all if he figures out how to switch it on.
I’ve always silently prayed for everything to go well on any night he performs and pleaded in my own mind for him to stay in line. Yet when he finally did, I wanted him to have one of those cheeky moments where he steps out of it and gives us one of his smiles and signature wiggles. We’re never happy with what we have are we?
I saw him say a couple of words to the girl at the side of him. I also saw him put his arm around her affectionately and her turn around to her friend and smile. These are memories that I will never forget. Joseph to them is another one of the dancers. He may do things a little differently but they all adjust to that and I always think in these situations that it not only helps Joseph but it helps the children too. These are our adults of the future, who will not have the same views on disability that many of us have grown up with.
We’ve not always had positive experiences within groups we’ve attended. People get hung up on what is considered a reasonable adjustment in accordance with the Equality Act. What is a reasonable adjustment to me? Being kind, being patient and being understanding. The rest will just follow.
I’ve always said, I don’t know where Joseph gets his love of music and dance from but I will do everything within my power to ensure he receives the opportunities he deserves. I’ve also said that I don’t know whether he will ever go off the idea or it will simply become too much, but I know that we’ll have given it our all and he’ll have had a huge amount of support along the way.
This post is dedicated to the Rotherham Dance Centre family who have embraced Joseph and nurtured him so that he continues to reach his full potential.