It seems to be the season of the birthday party in our world. I am amazed at the sheer volume of invitations that seem to arrive daily for my daughters.
Each party has a life of its own, and comes with its own set of challenges. This coming weekend, Katie will attend her very first slumber party. We wait with bated breath, half expecting a call in the middle of the night, but hoping (I think) that she can make it through.
With Brooke of course, the challenges are different.
This past weekend, I took her to a gymnastics party to celebrate with a little boy from her class and twenty or so of their friends and classmates. As we always do, we prepped in the car. “What do we do if it gets too loud?” “What do you do if you need a break?” She seems to have the concept down.
Last June, thanks to a local grass roots autism initiative, I had the opportunity to help create what was to be a four session long gym class for kids on the spectrum. The class was a great success and has continued on to this day, with little Miss Brooke leading the charge of enthusiastic participants.
I think her status as a founding member of the ‘superstars’ class has helped make it possible for her to tolerate the controlled chaos of a gym party. She is accustomed to the running and jumping and even the pounding music. She covers her ears when the teacher prompts the “Happy Birthday” yell. She even follows along and participates to some degree in nearly all of the activities.
We arrived with the throng of other kids and found our way to the cubbies to peel off our snow gear. I barely noticed the other parents shooing their kids into the gym with a wave and turning on their heels to leave. Is this when we began to drop Katie off at birthday parties? Kindergarten? I suppose it was. Different milestones.
The birthday boy’s mom came over as I was signing Brooke in. Apparently a conversation had preceded my arrival. “This is the mom I told you about,” she said to the young lady at the door. She’s going to want to stay.” I smiled at her and followed Brooke in. There didn’t seem to be a need for me to say anything else.
Brooke ran in and joined the other kids as they jumped in and out of a huge foam pit. While the other kids lined up and eagerly awaited a turn swinging from a rope, Brooke seemed perfectly content to wedge herself in between the foam blocks in a tight little corner. I did my best to make myself invisible.
The party began with each child taking their place around a gigantic parachute in the middle of the floor. Brooke ran around the perimeter for a while as the other kids got settled in. I gave her some time to find her bearings and then prompted her to join them.
The parachute rippled and spun as the kids followed the instructors’ direction. The birthday boy took a ride in the middle and then got wrapped as a gift and spun open, much to his delight. The kids then lifted the billowing parachute high over their heads and peeked at one another in the colors underneath. As they all held on tight and made funny faces at each other, Brooke let it go.
She ran under the parachute into the middle, much to the instructors’ dismay. She found her way out, but was disoriented once she reached daylight. She began to gently gallop her way around the floor, completely indifferent to the action in the middle. I started to move toward her, ready to draw her back into the fold. And then I stopped.
Brooke, you need to come over here.
Brooke, you can stand over here. I have a spot for you.
Come on, Brooke. It’s ok. Stand here with me.
Brookie, here’s a place. Look, it’s on the red part!
No less than six little voices – gently encouraging her, showing her where to go, how to follow along. Her friends. Looking out for her. I stayed invisible.
They moved from the parachute over to a long stretch of in-ground trampoline. The kids clustered on the floor in a tight clump of knees and elbows, awaiting instruction. Brooke hesitated just long enough to be left without a space in which to sit. She stopped and started, obviously unsure of how to approach finding a spot for herself.
One of her Critter party friends sat right in the middle of the group. I watched in awe as she scooted three kids over and made a hole right in the center for my baby. She patted the floor next to her, now wide open. Brooke didn’t react. Slowly, patiently, gently this little girl encouraged Brooke to sit down next to her. Brooke, there’s room for you. She patted the floor again. Come sit here.
After the trampoline, it was time for a short break in the action. The kids made their way over to a water fountain and dutifully lined up behind one another to await their turn. Brooke took the long way over, running her hands along walls, gym mats and the floor along the way – always taking in the textures of her world. By the time she got there, there was only one little girl behind her on a very long line. (She happened to be another of the Critter party friends.)
Each child took a drink from the the water fountain. And then it was Brooke’s turn. I stood a good distance away as she stared the fountain down. It must have worked differently than the ones at school and she hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with it. She crouched down and peered underneath it. She tentatively touched the spout with a tiny finger. Nothing happened. I took two steps toward her, ready to help. Again, I stopped in my tracks.
The little girl behind her stepped forward. Do you want me to show you how it works, Brooke? I can do it for you if you want. She pushed the button and Brooke happily lapped up the water. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
Again and again, the scene was replayed. One little girl gently prompted her to sit on top of the parachute like the rest of the kids, another held a handle for her to grab when they all seemed to be taken. A little group of them tried to explain to her that she had been tagged by a zombie while playing ‘mummy cross my tomb’ so she had to walk like them now. Watch, Brooke. Can you move your arms and legs like us? We’re zombies too! Some of their overtures worked; some didn’t. They didn’t seem to mind.
These kids were looking out for her. They were keeping her in the mix. They were including her.
Over the past few months I’ve talked a lot about this village that I’ve found here in blog land. This incredible network of support and love and understanding. A place where I know that people speak my language, have my back and won’t let me slide through the cracks. And meanwhile, the most wondrous thing has been happening. My daughter has been finding the exact same thing.
What a glorious thing it is to know that Brooke has a village of her own.