I come from a family of theater enthusiasts, myself included. And although I am the only one of four children never to have starred in a play, I was always happy to watch them. Enthralled, actually. A good production is amazing to see, and even better to share.
So I always wondered if my son, now fifteen, would ever be able to enjoy seeing a play with me. In the past, it was out of the question. His sensory issues due to his autism and his need for frequent breaks would not have made a play possible. He would have never made it to intermission. But his love of movies has sparked a recent interest in theater, so he started taking a theater class as an elective. And when comp tickets for a student-written play were given out to his class, he was motivated to go.
We ran through a little social story beforehand to prepare him – must not talk or make any noises during the play, must not get up before intermission unless it’s an emergency, etc. The theater class students were to sit in a reserved section of the theater – the first three rows. I urged him to sit near the aisle in case he needed to leave, and then I went to find a seat several rows behind him. I loved watching him choose his seat in the ten minutes before the play began. First, he sat in the third row near the aisle – good, I thought. He stayed there for a few minutes, and then he got up and nonchalantly moved to the middle of the front row. Probably not the best choice for him. He seemed a little uncomfortable there, and sure enough, he got up after a moment and moved again. Then Goldilocks settled in the second row, a few seats over from the aisle. Well done, I thought. And there he stayed.
The lights dimmed, and the play, a musical adaptation of The Lord of the Flies (yes, I said musical), began. I was highly intrigued to see how the songs would be handled, and I must say that I was quite impressed. This was definitely not a comedic musical; the songs were well written in a dramatic tone and fit seamlessly in the course of the story. And what a talented group of young actors and singers! The boy in the roll of Ralph had an incredible singing voice – I could have listened to him for hours. All of the students amazed me – the set was admirable, and the performance was flawless.
At intermission, Nigel got up and I met him out in the aisle, where he quietly told me that he was going to the bathroom. I told him how well he was doing and went back to my seat. Nigel came back a few minutes later and returned to the same spot in the second row. He turned around and gave me a little smile, and my heart soared.
When the play ended, he applauded with everyone else and then came back to find me. I could tell that he was a little worked up, and I stuck close to him as we filed out of the theater. We entered the foyer, and all the actors were out greeting people. Nigel walked toward the actor who played the character Piggy, held his (own) arms up, and said triumphantly, “It was magnificent!” I smiled, not remembering when I last heard so much emotion in his usually stoic voice. Piggy thanked him and said, “I’m so glad you could make it!” My son then introduced me to the talented boy, a senior, who had adapted the play and written the songs, and had starred in the roll of Jack. I shook his hand and congratulated him, telling him how amazing it was. Inside, I marveled at all these wonderful kids who had befriended my son, a freshman with the different speech patterns, sensory issues, and social mannerisms of autism. These kids were so genuine, so sincere. They welcomed him as one of them.
I asked Nigel if he was ready to go. I could tell he was a little amped up, and even I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic. Things had gone well, and I wanted to get home and relax. “Wait! I want you to meet Ian,” he said, looking around. How did he know all these kids?! This was a side of him I had never seen before! And then, as if to illustrate that point exactly, he suddenly called out, “Ian!” and threw his arms around the boy who had played Ralph, the one whose voice I loved. Nigel gave him an immense hug – a victory hug. And Ralph/Ian hugged him back, smiling and thanking him.
It was the first time I had ever seen my son initiate a hug. All his life he’s patiently - albeit stiffly - accepted our hugs, indulged us. I’ve always said that hugging Nigel was like hugging a surfboard, and the taller he gets, the truer that is. Once, when I surprised him with homemade chicken tacos (his favorite dinner), he tackled me with a wrestling move that literally took me to the floor, but I’d never seen him solicit a real hug in his fifteen years. And now there was this. This perfectly executed, wonderfully appropriate, well-received hug. And I got to see it happen, right before my eyes. It was beautiful, something I didn’t know I’d ever see.
“This is my mom,” I heard my son say. I felt like I was in a dream – people talking and moving all around me, creating a sort of buzz that put me in a hazy state. And I was overjoyed, just filled with emotion, choking back tears as I smiled and shook the hand of yet another talented young man who obviously means a lot to my son. I told him how much I enjoyed his singing; I wasn’t able to get much else out.
We left soon afterward, walking side by side out to the car in the cold night air. Nigel exclaimed how great the play was, and I was so happy to have enjoyed it with him. I breathed in sharply to fend off my joyful tears, thinking only of the wonderful gifts that were bestowed upon me that night – watching a play with my son and witnessing a most glorious, unexpected hug. Every day with my son I learn that the simplest things are often the most profoundly experienced.
Tanya writes TeenAutism.