Boston Globe Documentary Short, “Dance with Me”
"In the United States, a promenade dance, most commonly called a prom, is a semi-formal (black tie) dance or gathering of high school students. This event is typically held near the end of the senior year (the last year of high school). Proms figure greatly in popular culture and are major events among high school students." - Wikipedia
Parents of neurotypical children are usually keenly aware of the importance of their teen's prom and all the preparations that must be made for the big day. On the other hand, parents of children on the autism spectrum may think of a prom as yet another milestone event that their son or daughter will be unable to experience.
But for many students who attend the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Randolph, going to the prom is a dream that can and does come true. Every student, from age 16 to 22, is invited to the school prom. Families and school and residential staff begin well in advance to help students prepare for the big event.
Although we have been holding proms for many years on our Randolph campus, our 2018 prom was a little different. That’s because The Boston Globe asked to follow two of our students – Sophia and Peter – as they prepared for and then attended the event. Globe videographers Taylor and Emily got to know Sophia and Peter (and their teachers and families) during visits in their classrooms, on the playground, at their homes, and out in the community, filming all the while.
When it came time to get ready for the dance, Taylor was there when Peter and a May staff person shopped for prom clothes at Target. Emily was there when Sophia had a missing front tooth replaced, and when her sisters fixed her hair before the prom. On the big day, both videographers captured Sophia and Peter’s special moments from start to finish.
The result is an extraordinary documentary short titled, “Dance with Me.” This video is not scripted or rehearsed; it an honest, unbiased, unfiltered recording of real and very special moments during one month in Sophia and Peter’s lives. We hope the journey portrayed in this documentary moves you as it has moved all of those involved in its creation.
Special thanks go to:
The Boston Globe. “Dance with Me” was months in the making, and we felt from the beginning that The Boston Globeunderstood and respected the sensitivity of such a project. These were real lives and real families who shared the love they had for their children and the realities associated with raising a child with significant special needs.
The staff at the May Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. You made it possible to shadow your work in the classrooms, community-based residences for students, and out in the community. You allowed us to film while staff and kids lived out their lives.
Peter and Sophia’s parents. You opened doors to us. Boston Globe staff visited your homes, spent time with you, and interviewed you extensively. You understood and appreciated the goals here – to share challenges, triumphs, and realities of daily life, and of special moments like the prom.
Two things everyone learns quickly about Amaya: she is very social, and she loves to sing.
She seeks out interaction with staff and her peers all day long. And wherever Amaya goes, there is song! Her musical tastes are eclectic. Nineties music, like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, and the classics Lean on Me and Somewhere Over The Rainbow (which she performed in the school show last year after being coached by Music Teacher Erik James). According to Amaya’s mother, Ann, her repertoire also runs to rap and hip hop. “The staff at school has definitely leveraged Amaya’s desire for interaction and her love of music to help focus and motivate her.”
Each of us is motivated by different things. The same is true for the individuals we serve. Teaching communication and social skills, which are core deficits of autism, can be challenging and time-intensive. Identifying the things that a person most enjoys — and really wants to work for — helps build their core skills, makes them happy, and increases the likelihood of future success.
For Amaya, music is her motivator and reinforcement. It’s her reward when she finishes her work or tasks, and during potentially difficult transition times. Singing is also a great and socially acceptable way for her to seek out attention.
Amaya enrolled at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the age of 14. Her teacher Samantha remembers, “When she first arrived, Amaya’s aggressive behaviors were frequent and fairly intense.”
But the seven years since then have been good ones for Amaya. They haven’t always been easy, but she has made strong and steady progress. “Amaya can still have her moments,” Sam observes, “but now those behaviors are pretty few and far between.”
“Sometimes Amaya just gets stuck,” says Sam. “Given her love of music, staff began seeing opportunities to engage with her using fun, singsong prompts.” Now those prompts are part of her daily routine, and move her easily from one task to another. For instance, Amaya and Sam work together when it’s time for Amaya to make her oatmeal. Sam will start: First we get out the oatmeal... then we go to the kitchen... then we open the oatmeal... pour it in the bowl... “and Amaya will join in and sing along and off we go.”
When Amaya was 18, she transitioned to a May residence. Although it was tremendously difficult for her parents, Amaya seemed ready for it. Her sister had left for college some years earlier and Amaya had grown restless at home. “I don’t think there was enough excitement and stimulation for her,” recalls Ann. Her father George adds, “We were worried about how Amaya would handle the transition, but she settled in easily and took to it quite well.” Utilizing music as part of her behavior support plan in the residence created consistency across settings for her.
“Amaya has learned, much better than we ever thought she would, how to be in close quarters with other people in the house and riding in the van,” George explains. “There are still sporadic episodes of a hair pull here or a grab there, but by and large it was thrilling for us to step into the house and see her snuggled between two people on the sofa — not something she could do easily before. She’s come a long way.”
This coming spring Amaya turns 22, which means two big transitions: moving to a new group residence and adult day program. Ann and George are making plans and anticipating what’s next for Amaya with less trepidation now. “The goal is to make sure she’s happy and surrounded by a supportive, caring staff,” says Ann. “Then she can have those positive interactions with people she loves.”
Music will help her do that. It makes her happy. “And,” adds George, “when Amaya is happy, she makes everyone around her happy.”
Samantha agrees. “I can be having a hard day, but then Amaya comes in and she’s singing True Colors— and suddenly I feel great!”
Meet May - Teri, May Parent.
Appreciating the Little Things
Every parent beams with pride when their child steps on a stage. And every student lights up with excitement when they see their very own artwork on public display.
Opportunities for special moments like these came for families, staff, and students at the May Center for Child Development’s first-ever Winter Showcase held at the Randolph, Mass., campus. The event featured a holiday and winter-themed art exhibit and musical extravaganza, where students from ages 3 to 22 sang, played, and danced to their favorite songs.
The performances represented significant individual accomplishments and personal courage for students like Josephat. Here are excerpts from his mother’s letter:
Josephat was two years old when he was diagnosed with autism. I was not naive or in denial. I had known that something was “wrong” long before then, and had been pushing his pediatrician for answers for more than a year. Still, hearing that diagnosis was heartbreaking. It made it official. My beautiful, big-eyed boy with the contagious smile was autistic.
Josephat is now nine years old. Over the last seven years there have been many setbacks, but just as many triumphs. I still hold high, albeit different, expectations for my son. I have learned that while autism brings many challenges, it does not limit Josephat’s ability to be happy. Most importantly, I have learned to appreciate the little things.
The Winter Showcase was full of little things to appreciate. There was seeing the beautiful artwork, created by Josephat and other May Center students, that lined the walls leading into the gym. There was watching Josephat on stage with his classmates, banging the drum and dancing around to the music. And, there was listening to Josephat, a minimally verbal child, sing “Jingle Bells,” one of his favorite songs. He was a bit off tempo, but all smiles.
Seeing Josephat so happy is the best thing of all!