As I shut my computer after making the $87 online payment for Lucy’s first gymnastics class I said, “Well, she better love it.” After all, $87 is an incredibly large sum of money to me in which I could easily find other uses for. But even though I was apprehensive, I know how important it is for Lucy to experience new things.
Some time before Lucy’s 2nd birthday, Devin and I noticed two things; 1) she could correctly identify the entire alphabet, and 2) she loved jumping… a lot. During her two-year check-up, her Doctor suggested we see several specialists to improve her (almost) non-existent speech. We began with the audiology department- Lucy had several ear infections as a baby resulting in the placement of tubes. Doctors had thought that because of the ear infections she wasn’t hearing correctly, therefore, prolonging any speech. But as it turns out, her hearing was fine.
The District referred us to the Early Childhood Special Education program where, for almost three months, Lucy had been testing to see if she would qualify for any services. I remember watching Lucy’s Special Education Teacher, Speech Therapist and ECSE specialist as they clapped and cheered as Lucy recited her alphabet and told me they’d never seen a just-two-year-old that remarkable. As I beamed with pride, they continued to say, “She has beautiful eye contact. She’s very pleasing, but you can tell she doesn’t understand most of what you’re saying. And when she does, it takes her a few extra seconds to process the information.”
For the next few months two specialists continued to see Lucy on a bi-weekly basis. They’d come to “play games” with her- to keep her focused on one task and teaching her how to speak when she wanted something. Toward the end of the summer, thinking Lucy was making great progress, they had been working with the Autism Specialist in hopes she could observe Lucy. After graduating with a Special Education degree in 2010, the word “Autism” was not far from my reach. I’d worked with several students on the spectrum and thrived on researching different theories and therapies. But… my daughter? No way. Not Lucy. Remember months back when you had just told me she was brilliant? That she had beautiful eye contact? Do you remember telling me she “probably wouldn’t even qualify for servicing?” She would begin preschool in the fall and as Devin and I sat around an oval table, feeling overwhelmed and unqualified, Lucy’s IEP team began to tell us that her strengths were incredible, but her weaknesses were holding her back entirely too much. They recommended she continue attending preschool in a “self-contained” classroom (solely Special Ed students all with 1 on 1 para support) four days a week, to provide maximum consistency and support going forward.
Their words became slush to me and I thought of 101 places I’d rather be than hearing that my child wasn’t “typical”- that she would likely experience life much differently than other children. Though they assured me she would be on the higher functioning side of the spectrum, my mind raced with fears of bullying, tantrums and flapping. I had remembered earlier this summer watching Lucy at the zoo; the more excited she became, the stranger she would walked. She ran toward our next stop, as high on her tippy-toes as she possibly could. I pointed it out to Devin and in the back of my mind I prepared myself to hear the exact words they murmured around the oval table.
We became positive and proactive, taking every step necessary to do what’s best for Lucy. Knowing she was always “quirky” (but hilariously adorable to us) we wanted to make everything as easy on her as possible. Katie, a college friend of mine who is an Autism Specialist in St. Cloud, became my go-to person along with my sister and good friends I was able to vent to. Knowing one of Lucy’s biggest weaknesses was transitioning, we decided to get Lucy involved in lots of new things, allowing her to experience different places and people. Her new school was the start, followed by trips to the library and a figure skating performance. Earlier this spring, I began to look for more opportunities for her to grow and shine. Gymnastics, bowling, swimming and Vacation Bible School were quickly added to our calendar and I was ecstatic to watch her experience it all.
For months I’ve prepared myself for the inevitable; ignorant people who don’t understand ASD and quick judgement of parents for their children’s (sometimes) strange behaviors. But as the number of diagnosed ASD kids is rapidly rising, I was confident the world was becoming a much softer and warmer place, full of empathetic and loving people….
Lucy began her first week of gymnastics and though she refused to wear the black leotard we’d picked out together, she went in with a smile. Of course, we’d spent days preparing her for the first night, easing her into a new place. Even though I had thoroughly explained Lucy’s needs to the staff, I reminded one gymnastic coach that she may need extra time and may need to keep Woody and Jessie, her most prized stuffed friends, for comfort. As I tried to sneak away unnoticed, I heard Lucy yell out to me, “Bye, Mom!” I watched her from the balcony with tears in my eyes as she continued to follow directions. She set her friends aside as she attempted a cartwheel and took off for the next part of the obstacle course leaving them behind. My heart skipped a beat. HOLY COW PEOPLE!! ARE YOU WATCHING MY KID? LOOK HOW AMAZING SHE IS!! Following the session, I got Lucy out to the car and she told me she “loves gymnastics” and I was super excited to take her the next time.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t leave our next session with such happiness. They began the session by taking away her friends and setting them aside. I waited for her to completely melt, but she followed the rest of the class. I’m not sure if it was the absence of her friends, but Lucy was having an off-day and her instructor was visibly frustrated at the amount of times she’d had to refocus her attention. She got up on the balance beam, jumped down and wandered around for the 100th time. The woman next to me looked down and said, “Wow, that little girl in the pink has NO idea what she’s doing. Good thing she’s cute.” The words completely stopped me in my tracks and I began to feel a big lump in my throat emerge. I wanted to cry and yell out, but knowing it would all have come out in blubber, I turned my head as the tears welled in my eyes.
And there it was. The first time I’d ever hear someone make a judgmental comment about her being different. I thought I’d prepared myself, but I had no idea the amount the sting it would leave on my heart. When the session was over, I ran downstairs to get Lucy as quickly as I could. We got in the car and I had to tell myself, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry. Don’t let Lucy see you be upset.’ When I was able to calm myself, I looked at Lucy through the rear-view mirror and said, “Lucy, do you love gymnastics?” “I LOOOOVE gymnastics, Mom!”
Sure, I’ll say it- that was a bitch-comment. She was being ignorant, rude, hurtful and pretty stupid to mutter those words not knowing who was in an earshot. She had no idea that I beamed with pride as I watched Lucy do one thing after another exceeding my expectations.
So… to the woman with the bitch-comment,
Getting my daughter dressed in different clothing, tying her hair back and buckled in the car on time was a victory. Getting her in the door to a new place, with new people was a victory. For her to sit among a group of peers and listen to instructions is a victory. You must not have any idea how extremely proud I am of this little girl whose world looks much different than yours. How sad that you feel the need to make comments about a three-year-old at her second day of gymnastics. Maybe you said that comment to be funny or just have something to say but no matter the reason, it was completely unnecessary and inappropriate. It hurt me, leaving pain that will take a long time to melt away, but I just want you to know that I would never change her. And I hope that someday you will gain some empathy and understanding for others.