I watched you tonight during your dance class, sweet girl. Don’t take that the wrong way — I’m always paying attention while you dance. Tonight, though, as I sat on my side of that mirrored window, I watched you and got a glimpse into your little world. What I saw as I was watching evoked a myriad of emotions I’m still trying to sort through, hours later.
Emotions in and of themselves are complex things. Trying to understand the reasons behind them is like peeling back layers from a ball of rubber bands. The outside layers are obvious enough to separate from one another. But as you get closer to the core, the process becomes far more daunting. The bands down there are so tightly intertwined, they almost seem to want to stay tucked away there in the middle, protected underneath the more superficial layers. The more I think about my own emotions, the more confused I become. How is it that in 45 minutes, I can look at you and feel so many different things?
In one moment, my heart is swelling with so much pride, I truly feel it might burst. There you are, standing in a circle with 12 other little girls in your class, blending in seamlessly. You’re smiling, laughing, and going through the motions, right along with them. Things shift then, and moments later, I’m so anxious that I have to remind myself to breathe. Your class is lined up against the back wall as each of you wait for your turn to try a new dance move with the instructor. You follow directions and take your place in line, but then, like every week, you find yourself in the mirror. The dance class has now become background noise to you. You’re busy dancing your heart out to your own music. I am not anxious for you. You are happy, and that’s all I want when I bring you here. I’m anxious for me, I suppose. I hold my breath because I wait for a question or comment about you from another parent watching the class. We’ve been coming to class for four weeks now, and I’m pretty sure the other parents have figured out, or at least suspect you are on the autism spectrum. Each week, the likelihood of anyone commenting on your actions probably decreases, yet I hold my breath and brace myself, anyway. Your turn in line comes. You try harder this week than ever before to mimic the instructors steps, and pride once again prevails over anxiety. It’s amazing to see these transitions get easier for you each time you come.
Class ends, and you come out and hug me. As you remove the ballet slippers and replace them with your new “rainbow shoes,” a hint of sadness creeps in. It’s just you and me, now. The other parents are chatting about getting ready for kindergarten as they pack up with their daughters to go home. I’m not involved in the conversation, and honestly, that’s OK. I’m not here to connect with them; I’m here for you.
I’m sorry no one in class has reached out to you. They’ve watched you, but they haven’t seen you, and that makes me sad. I wish they understood as you sit with me tonight, changing your shoes for the third time in 45 minutes, that you wore the same pair of bright pink Nikes with every outfit for nearly a year. Only in the past two weeks have you worked through the panic the idea of new shoes has always brought you. I wish someone else here was cheering for you.
I understand that other parents might not know what to say — to me, especially, and so they don’t initiate conversation. They problem is, their daughters are watching and learning from how their parents regard you. Many of them will model these very behaviors. Of any potential obstacle you could face, this is the most heart-wrenching. Nothing consumes me more than the idea that because you are different, you might be lonely.
The pride I felt earlier as I watched you blend in wasn’t because I wish for you to be like the other girls. You are beyond incredible exactly as you are. My pride was a result of watching you be yourself, while also watching you truly be a part of something with other children your age. There are many more months of dance class. Hopefully, in time, everyone will begin to really see you. Hopefully they will reach out. After all, a few of their daughters have begun to join you as you dance in the mirror. As it turns out, all 4-year-old girls love to watch themselves dance.