On Thursday night, I'll be headed to a Valentine's Dance at my son's school, which is for kids with special needs. I know that Max will have a blast dancing up a storm with friends as a DJ spins tunes, getting pictures of himself at the photo station, and eating lots and lots of sweets. (Last year, his teacher taught him how to do that fingers-over-eyes move from Pulp Fiction). There's just one thing about the dance, and about Max's school life in general, that gives me pause: He's only interacting with other kids who have disabilities. It's not inclusive. And that is not the real world.
I have the same mixed feelings about the A Night To Shine event taking place this Friday. At least 44 churches around the country will throw free proms for teens with special needs, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. The teens will be paired with volunteer buddies/hosts. There will be limo rides, a red-carpet entrance, hair and makeup beauty stations, tiaras and crowns, and of course, dancing. Of course, like many parents I am grateful that this is happening. As blogger Jamie Pacton wrote, "I hope my son with autism gets to go to a prom like this someday. This prom really is a night where the best of so many people can shine through."
So there's that sentiment. And then there's the longing special needs parents like me have for our kids to be involved in events and activities with kids who do not have special needs—exactly why it would be awesome if more schools around the country had proms and school dances that were welcoming to students with special needs.
We send Max to a special needs school because it's the right fit for him; inclusion in classes in our district isn't the best option. Max does participate in a program in which teens come and hang out with him at home, but other than that, he doesn't have much interaction with neurotypical peers. He very much exists in a Special Needs World. What will happen, I wonder, when he's an adult? If he spends his entire childhood immersed only in special needs programs and activities, interacting only with other kids with special needs, how will he know how to navigate a world with people of all kinds of abilities?
An inclusive school dance or prom is hardly the answer to these concerns, but it would be one more opportunity for kids with special needs to be mainstreamed and to prepare for their future, and one more way for other teens to get to know our kids better.
Nominating teens with Down syndrome to be prom kings and queens has become a trend. Ideally, more schools can work on ways to include students with special needs in the usual school dances and proms. Ideally, organizations could organize more dances and programs that are for attendees with and without disabilities. The kids and teens who attend Valentine's dances at their special needs schools and special needs proms this week are surely going to shine—but this parent wants to make sure our children keep right on shining and succeeding, long after they have left those special dances behind.
Ellen Seidman is a mom of two, editor, and professional snacker who blogs daily at Love That Max. You can find her pondering special needs parenthood and other important topics (such as what her next snack will be) on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ even though she still hasn't totally figured out what that is.
Image of prom corsage being placed on wrist via Shutterstock