Her name was Anna. She was having (this is not the technical term for it) a meltdown.Beautiful in her bold, satiny Royal Blue cap and gown, wheat blond hair brushed smooth, blue eyes pooling with tears and a look of sheer terror settling onto her face.
“Mrs Welter, would you please spend some time with Anna, she needs a “break“. “Of course!” I said, literally jumping into action and finding a small, quiet corner outside of the Marriott Hotel lobby. I had done this many times for many kids over the years, and the school director who has known me for 15 years knew that Anna was in good hands.
As we sat down side by side I started to ask Anna a few questions to take her mind off of her present state of anxiety, providing a pattern disrupter to move her into a new state in her breathing and in her body. We giggled a few times. Her eyes went from terror, to curiosity and she got very close to my face and asked my if I was wearing the crown because I was this year’s Homecoming Queen. I laughed and told her “kind of.” As she expressed her concern over the potential levels of volume during the graduation ceremony (that we were moments away from), and that she had never graduated before, I reminded her that there would also be as much quiet as there was loud, and shared with her that I had never spoken at a graduation ceremony before. After admitting that we were both a bit nervous, but that it would be ok to be nervous for a little while, and that some of the nervousness might actually be mixed with a little excitement, we stood up arm in arm and got into the processional line.
I was there to see Anna and her classmates graduate from Lionsgate Academy (a High school for students on the Autism spectrum). She and her classmates were there to hear me speak to them and send them into their next season in life with some sort of encouragement.
What ended up happening was a much deeper, much more profound exchange.
As I stood up to speak and looked into the faces of these extraordinary seniors ready to graduate, I looked down into my open binder, glanced back up again, this time at the student’s parents, siblings, and glancing at the staff and teachers, I closed my binder. I knew in that moment what they needed most was for me to share my story and the parts of the journey that they might most identify with.
I shared the most vulnerable things I had gone through. Anna had inspired me to talk about my 10 year struggle with acute anxiety and panic.
I shared that shortly after Ben was diagnosed with Autism, I felt very helpless and out of control as to how to best help my precious son. To my surprise, a few of the students, staring up at me actually shook their heads “yes” in order to let me know that they ‘knew’....that they could identify with that feeling. I was astonished. I went onto to describe my journey and how it led me to that stage that night. I encouraged them to do what their hearts told them they COULD do (despite what anyone else said) because if that dream lived in their hearts, than they already have everything they need to see it come to pass, and explained how that might look for them going forward. That it might include a bit of resistance, a test or two, but that all of that would be a part of the process that would end up helping them eventually and that continuing in their goal or dream would be well worth it. No matter how “big” or “small” that seemed.
When I was finished speaking, each student got to select a staff member, therapist or teacher to speak on their behalf and tell a funny story or share something unique about that student. These students range in their diagnosis from moderately affected by the symptoms of ASD, to “twice exceptional” with IQ’s in the geneious range so the stories of progress and accomplishment were amazing!
I can honestly say it was one of the most precious experiences to be a part of. These staff members reminisced, laughed and cried as they shared their favorite stories and how proud they were of the progress they’ve seen these kids make and how far they’ve come since entering the Lion’s Gate Academy School program.
By the end of the night we shared some laughs, a lot of sentimental tears, a few hugs and a ton of encouragement.
Lionsgate had given these kids the wings to fly. Now, I cannot wait to see all the wonderful places those wings take them!