Surviving Graduation with Autism and Developmental Disability

The gym was bustling with people. It was a small gym, and the presence of so many families made it seem overly crowded. Metal folding chairs had been placed in rows facing the stage, and most were now either occupied or claimed by personal belongings. In the front there were 2 empty rows, roped off with ribbons. Those rows were for the graduating class.

The dark blue velvet curtains on the stage had been drawn shut to hide the props that were still hanging in place for the end-of-year school production. A solitary oak podium graced stage left, upon which there was a carefully organized stack of papers, dimly lit by a brass podium lamp. A banner hung over the stage, painted in the school colours of navy blue and white. It said “Congratulations to the Class of 2015”.

We gladly sat at the back, avoiding the frenzy for good seats, and welcoming the anonymity it afforded.

Presently the main gymnasium lights were dimmed and replaced by theatrical lights focused on the stage. In the darkness, the heads of the people in front of us, most of whom I did not know, became simply silhouettes; black cardboard cookie cut-out people. I was staring at a life sized digital audience from a stock image website.

It was our third Grade 8 graduation. It was, our third son. But this graduation was not like the others. The only common thread, no pun intended: the same suit that my eldest wore, and my second son wore, was about to experience it’s third and final public appearance. What charity should I give it too? I was considering several options when the Principal stepped onto the stage and addressed the podium. The crowd fell briefly silent.

“Good evening families! Welcome to the 35th graduation ceremonies of St. Francis of Assisi Elementary school. I am Principal Lefebvre, and it is my pleasure to welcome this evening, the class of 2015! He turned to the side and began to applaud, as a signal to the audience and to the door to the hallway at stage right! The door opened and a beam of light streamed into the darkened gym. Then a disco ball and coloured lighting transformed the room into a dazzling party. Multiple-colored dots danced around the room to the theme music from Rocky. From that open door, the class of 2015 steadily processed into the gym, in alphabetical order, each carrying a mortarboard, each making his or her way to the designated rows of chairs. The crowd was now on its feet, greeting the class with cheers and a deafening applause.

I felt panic creeping up my entire body, I felt my face flushing. OMG this is too much for him. The lights, the noise! I watched with a kind of dread. Sure enough, the procession of students through the open door of light suddenly stopped. There, in the entrance to the gym, stood a familiar shape. I recognized that silhouette immediately. The mortarboard he was carrying in his hands suddenly clattered noisily to the ground, as two hands reached up to plug two ears. Only one sense at a time. See first, hear later. I watched the dark audience heads shift to the right to observe the stoppage. I watched his shadow scan the gym transformed into graduation. The gym did not look like it should. It did not sound normal. He began to back up slowly. Then somebody behind him gave him an impatient shove, and I watched his body shadow reflect the change from confusion to alarm. I sat there paralyzed. To my enormous relief, a teaching assistant hurried to his side to calm the perfect storm of incomprehension, and take him to his seat. The ceremony continued.

Many things went through my mind after that scene. I questioned my decision for him and I to experience a milestone. I realized with a kind of sadness, that I made this choice for me. But really, there would be no graduation, not ever for either of us, and for him the ceremony was just another difficult incomprehensible experience.

Once the grade 8 graduates were seated, the principal spoke briefly about accomplishments and the future. I began to hear the speech dissolve into the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. When the crowd began to applaud, the graduates stood and processed to stage right, where they were called by name, one by one, to receive their diplomas. I watched each graduating student move across the stage, accept the mortarboard on their heads and receive a tightly coiled paper diploma tied with a blue and white ribbon. Then there was a shake of hands and an exit stage left. So easy, for those who do not experience that vast Grand Canyon that separates some from any moment.

Presently N’s turn approached. He was now walking in the line towards the stage, holding his EA’s hand, making his clearly audible self-comforting nonsense noise, which I call “Nick noise”. He had no idea what was going on. I did not feel the way I should feel, instead I felt something like terror. I heard the Principal call his name, I felt the pause, I could see the EA gesturing towards the podium, and quietly reminding him what he needed to do. With only a slight hesitation, Nick strode with noisy feet across the stage. He gave the mortarboard to Mr. Lefebvre with a big smile, then started to jump up and down, while flapping his hands wildly and uttering a loud string of jibberish. Murmurs of laughter from the audience, who did not quite know what they were looking at. The principal waited for Nick to stop jumping, then he placed the mortarboard on Nick’s head. Nicks innocent glee turned to confusion, and in an instant, he swiftly removed the mortarboard and threw it down on the first row of graduates. A hush of indrawn breaths and some giggles came from the audience. Nick did not appear to notice any of the reactions of the crowd. What he did notice was – the thing was off his head, and so happiness resumed. The diploma was handed to him, which he snatched and began to spin around and around. He just stood there, stuck, spinning the coiled diploma. I heard a faint voice stage left urging him to come down off the stage. It was my voice. So I stood up. I stood up to do hear what I had to say, but instead of hearing my own voice tell me something I already knew, I woke up. I found myself sitting upright crying in my bed with the sheets tangled around my legs.

It was just a dream. It happened for the first time maybe six months before. It recurred only once but it left me thinking. I could see that N is stuck on the stage, he is forever stuck at stage left exactly where he was 10 or so years ago. The scenery changes, the circumstances move with time and not with reason. The things we can count on to help us through, they change too.

So when the time came, the time for N’s real grade 8 graduation, on behalf of both of us, I declined. I could not put us through something like that. Everybody needs to evaluate their own child, and themselves. To me the most important decision maker as to whether or not to participate in graduation is – does the child understand why a change would be celebrated? Does the child understand the idea of a goal and its accomplishment? Finally nobody should be expected to engage themselves in something that could never possibly be rewarding to them.


About lifewithautistickid

I am a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), with an MBA and BA. I have been fortunate to have had an extraordinary life with an autistic kid. I have learned so much from him about people and life in general. I want to make a difference by sharing my extraordinary experiences. Raising a son with severe autism and developmental disability has made me realize how we who are "normal" do not understand "disability". Instead of trying to "fix" people like my son by burying them in the community, I would like to see a society that respects and honors them for who they are. The potential is endless, in a world that can celebrate with sincerity, the dignity of the individual. Love and blessings to people of all "disability" . That includes you and me!
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