Here's Why Prom Was Such A Big Deal For My Kid

by Gail Kellner
Gail Kellner

In April, Ben had an appointment with the orthodontist.

“The prom is in May.”

I focused on merging onto the Mass Pike. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

“Mrs. Cowles said she knows who I would want to go with.”

Ben is seventeen. He is on the Autism Spectrum. Mrs. Cowles is his one-to-one.

“Who?” I was intrigued. Ben never mentioned wanting to go to the prom to me.

“Gwen and Emily.”

Gwen and Emily were two girls who were somewhere in his class. I say “somewhere” because Ben has special needs classes and I was pretty sure Gwen and Emily were neurotypical students. At least, when the senior class went to NYC, they did not tote along a one-to-one, as Ben did.

“Do they have boyfriends?”

“I don’t think so. I never see them talking to any boys.”

This stunned me. Ben not only pondered going to the prom, but he was paying enough attention to notice that these girls seemed to be single. Who is this kid?

As it turned out, Gwen did have a boyfriend and Emily had a date. But they said they would be happy to dance with Ben. And Mrs. Cowles said she would go to the prom, to take pictures and keep an eye on him.

Great. It’s all settled.

Naturally, a week before the prom, Mrs. Cowles took a different job. She thought she might still go, but maybe not. This put us into a tailspin.

The prom was at a local venue that usually had proms, wedding receptions, and the like. Dinner was from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Then there was a lull, then dancing.

In the week before the prom, I texted Mrs. Cowles about half a million times.

“Should he go when it starts?”

“Are Gwen and Emily going to save him a seat?”

“Won’t this be awkward, as they have dates?”

“How loud is the prom?”

“Gwen and Emily won’t forget, will they?”

Then someone contacted us with a new problem. One of Ben’s teachers had a question: Who’s going to supervise him?

“Why does anyone need to supervise him? Does every kid who goes to the prom bring supervision? What do they think he’s going to do, explode?”

“He has a disability,” My husband yelled. “He needs help.”

“With what?” I fired back. “He’s just going to go dance with Gwen and Emily, have a soda and leave. He’ll probably last fifteen minutes.”

There was a lot of tense conversation back and forth. Why does everyone always underestimate Ben? Because he’s autistic. Because he flaps and he walks with a lilt. Because he never seems like he’s paying any attention.

Some genius suggested, “Maybe Gail can chaperone the prom!”

“No, I am not going to chaperone the prom. Ben may be autistic, but he knows you don’t bring your mom to the prom.” I actually thought it would be fun to supervise a prom, but I knew Ben would not appreciate it. He wanted to be a regular high school kid.

Mrs. Cowles said other students would keep an eye on him. “They’re all really good with him.”

In the end, we agreed I would wait in the car in the parking lot. It wasn’t like he was going to last long, anyway. He could go, have a soda, dance with Gwen and Emily and leave whenever he wanted. I brought a book. Half an hour, max.

“Have fun, sweetheart,” I said, as he excitedly leapt from the car. We had picked out dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a tie. Typically Ben wears pants with “no buttons, no zippers, no snaps” and never, ever a button down shirt. Or a tie. I opened my kindle.

I could hear the music from the car. It was so loud. I read a chapter. I read another chapter. I had to go to the bathroom. Well, it wouldn’t be much longer. Goodness, had it already been…forty-five minutes?

I read more. I played Hungry Shark. I read another chapter.

Finally, after almost two hours, Ben emerged from the prom.

“I danced with Gwen and Emily!” He shouted in triumph. “I didn’t even recognize them at first!” A little softer he said, “They looked like princesses.” He seemed awed.

“They looked pretty?” I asked.

“Yeah. So, you can understand why I have a ‘crush’ (here he made the signs for quotes with his fingers) on them.” He sighed. “I like good times.”

He chatted with me about the prom all the way home. Being Ben, he said the same things quite a few times, but his happiness at being included, and with dancing with girls that he liked, shone through everything he said. He was just like everyone else, going to the prom and having a good time. He was proud of himself.

I was proud, too. I also harbored a tiny bit of “I told you so!” but I was really happy for Ben.

Never underestimate a kid with autism. They’ll surprise you.