83: They Think He’s Dancing

83: They Think He’s Dancing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

They Think He’s Dancing

Dance is the hidden language of the soul.

~Martha Graham

“Oh, look!” says the well-meaning cashier, laughing heartily. “He’s got a little song in his head, don’t you, honey?” She tilts her head, looking for William’s gaze. “I see you dancing, buddy. Are you thinking of a song?”

He doesn’t answer her. Just keeps waving his arms in that tried-and-true, rhythmic motion.

“I’m sorry, he won’t answer you,” I say. “He has autism. He has a hard time with the commotion of a public place, and waving his arms like this makes him feel better.”

She smiles, not comprehending. “It’s so busy in here today. I have a two-year-old little girl, and she just cries at the grocery store. I have to keep after her with Cheerios, and then we’re all ready for a nap when we get home. You’re probably ready for a nap, aren’t you, buddy?”

“Yes, I am,” I reply, deadpan. She laughs, and I get the heck out of there.

It usually goes like that. I’m not trying to make them feel bad. I have about three self-deprecating jokes I rotate in a feeble attempt to educate the general public about autism, without the humiliation. Even so, I often go blank and say, “It’s probably a jazz song in his head. He loves jazz.” And then we talk about how unusual it is for a preschool-age kid to enjoy jazz so much. Or, you know, sometimes I just whip out a “No, he’s not dancing. He has autism. What was the total again?” Those are the days I’m kind of a jerk.

The latest one was different, though. My grandpa plays sax in a big jazz band. We live two states away, so we don’t have much opportunity to attend concerts. But there’s one venue they play every year that nobody in the family misses. The acoustics are just right. They play all the old standards — “In the Mood,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Hey, Mr. Zoot Suit,” and the crowd is always huge and has been known to randomly get up and dance. And when they introduce my grandpa, everyone in the first four rows screams and whistles, because all of us are Wagners by blood.

This year was the first year we knew how to handle the concert with William. Previously, we sat down in the front like we always had, and when the music started, it startled both William and our neurotypical daughter so badly there was no recovery. But this time, we started out in the back and worked our way forward once the kids had the chance to acclimate to the volume and recognize some of the music. And at that point, there was no holding him down.

I sat down in the second row next to my parents, and stuck William on my lap. He didn’t like that. He squiggled and slithered until he’d found the aisle, and started in on the arm waving. Up, in, out, in, down. Up, in, out, in, down. Then he brought his legs into it. Up, in, out, in, down, kick. Step, kick, kick. Up, in, out. Step, kick, kick. And then he looked up at me, once, eyes brilliant and twenty teeth shining, as if to say, “Don’t you see this, Mom? Don’t you hear how awesome this is?” and turned back to the band, waving and kicking and beaming.

I took my eyes off him and realized that I was getting those looks again. Those “knowing” smiles exchanged between the elderly husband and wife sitting across the aisle. The inevitable eye contact and smiling-shaking-the-head-in-wonder thing I got from both of the singers. The joyful giggles of children across the room, who took a cue from William and stood up to dance with one another. It seemed the whole front section of the room was watching him and loving him.

I knew I would be approached at intermission by at least three people who wanted to comment on William’s sweet dance, and I contemplated how to politely correct them. At first, I felt some strange combination between irritation and a sad knowledge that these people would likely never know what they were seeing. I felt sad that my husband and I and some of my relatives did know what we were seeing, and we were all alone in that. And I felt the blank-out coming. What were my funny, self-deprecating educational comments again?

That’s when I realized I had no idea what to correct. Was I supposed to correct their ignorant belief that he was . . . happy? Enjoying the music? Recognizing some of the songs? Dying, in some way, to express his joy?

They thought he was dancing. And . . . well, he was.

So, this time, when perfect strangers expressed their enjoyment of my son, I smiled. I said, yep, he loves to dance. I said he loves jazz. I said we’ve got a future pianist or drummer on our hands. And when one of the singers asked to introduce him to the crowd, I said sure.

They got it right enough.

~Maura Klopfenstein-Oprisko

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