In a few weeks, my husband and I will revel in watching our son walk the stage at the Tabernacle wearing a cap and gown — we hope. Danny’s autism means he isn’t big on social graces, nor is he a fan of tucked-in shirts and pants with zippers. If he keeps a gown and cap on for more than 10 minutes, that alone will be deemed a success in our family.
Danny will be able to continue at school for a couple of more years, until he reaches age 22, but we wanted him to have the graduation experience like the rest of his friends.
A milestone such as high school graduation is marked at our house with a party, cake, and in this case, Doritos by the pound. Danny’s best friend and classmate, Austin, loves them and anything that makes Austin smile makes Danny happy.
All this love between our son and school wasn’t always the case. We went through years of argumentative IEP meetings in our previous school district. It wasn’t until he joined Laura DeBettencourt’s life skills class that Danny truly began to enjoy school. And we watched as he began to blossom, the petals unfolding one at a time.
We were amazed when he began bringing home ceramic ducks and fish, embellished tiles and sculptures he created in art class. We watched as he developed friendships with classmates and peers — something that never happened before we moved to the Island. People we didn’t recognize began coming up to us, greeting Danny like an old friend. He polished up his laundry skills in class and took his turn at cooking lunch at school. I kept running into him at Stop & Shop, watching from afar while he pushed the grocery cart through the aisles as his friends filled it with ingredients for a special celebration.
But of all the events and lessons that have come from Danny’s classroom experience, I believe it is the student assistants who have had the most impact on Danny. These are students who choose to spend time with Danny and the rest of his class, which is made up of peers who carry familiar labels — like developmentally disabled or cognitively delayed or physically challenged or autistic. These labels are likely to define these students for some people, but as we’ve learned here, not everyone lets a label get in the way of friendship.
Last month we invited folks who support Danny at school and in the community to what we called a “vision party.” We asked them not knowing if they would come to our house on a weeknight after school and after work to celebrate and recognize the qualities in Danny that could help shape his future. But they came. His art teacher came. His occupational therapist came. His best friend came. And fellow seniors Matt Fielding, Isabelle Wadleigh and Kyle Stobie came. When those three walked through the door, Danny’s smile grew even wider. Danny’s autism prevents him from expressing himself the way he’d like to at times, but we knew he was thrilled to see his friends.
These fellow seniors told us how much Danny loves crabbing, how good he is at playing Frisbee and how he rarely misses when they play catch with him. They said they’d love to take him fishing sometime and they’d be glad to play Frisbee golf with him on a weekend. Then, before they left the party, my husband and I asked what their plans are after they graduate.
Isabelle is going to university where she plans to study special education. Matt isn’t certain of his after graduation plans, but he said he’d like to visit with Danny over the summer. Kyle said he hopes to work in the life skills class next year.
Where does this happen? Who raises teenagers like these? We invited them but we really didn’t expect them to show up. We thought they must be exceptional kids because of the role they play in Danny’s life at school. We just weren’t expecting that connection to carry over into after-school life. I found out recently that the list of young people who help out totals 23 students.
So when Danny takes the stage to receive his certificate, we’ll be thinking, too, about all those students who helped him get there. With a little help from his friends, Danny’s senior year at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School was just about as good as it gets.