It started with the perfect dress — mint green, strapless, with a rhinestone belt. Then came the carefully-applied makeup, the emotional parents snapping endless photos of their babies all dressed up and the DJ blaring Top 40 tunes as the circles of friends danced all night together before high school comes to an end.
This weekend, Camille Galli enjoyed every detail of one of the most mythologized American rituals — the high school prom. It is a rite of passage Camille wasn’t always sure she and her classmates would be able to experience.
Camille is autistic. Last year, she watched her older sister, Bella, dressing up for her prom, then tapped out her frustration on the electronic device she uses to communicate.
“Why am I not going to prom?” the 16-year-old asked.
Camille’s younger sister, Frankie, couldn’t forget those words. She teamed up with Lauren Etherton, another sister of a teenager with autism, who incidentally was struck by the same idea. Together, Frankie, Lauren, and their friends made sure that the girls’ siblings, and 17 more students with autism, could enjoy a prom tailored especially for them.
This prom had the disco ball, a slow dance and crowd-pleasing food like chicken fingers and ice cream. But there was a quiet room, too, where autistic kids more prone to sensory overload could escape the chaotic dance floor and find calm.
“We’re here to make prom as realistic as possible for the students,” Lauren said. “We want to make sure that they have the best time.”
Frankie, 14, and Lauren, 17, shared their idea with adminstrators and teachers at the Kennedy Krieger School, the Rockville, Md., school for children with developmental disabilities where their siblings are students. Then they recruited their friends to help and divvied up responsibilities.
The Galli family hosted a fundraiser at SoulCycle, an exercise studio in Georgetown where participants paid to take a class. Frankie Galli said that they raised $11,000, enough for the food and activities at this year’s prom at Somerset House in Chevy Chase, with enough left over to fund next year’s prom, too.
Frankie and her classmates from Georgetown Day School, a private school in Washington, visited Kennedy Krieger several times to prepare the autistic students for prom. The Georgetown Day School students made videos about proper table etiquette and taught some dance steps the students could use on prom night. They even turned to wikiHow for simple pointers on how to ask someone to dance.
On prom night, the Georgetown Day School students yelled out their buddies’ names and asked them for photos as they arrived, showering them with attention.
Frankie found her buddy, Mattias Hurd, 15. “Wanna get something to drink?” she asked him. As she eagerly rushed to pour him a glass of lemonade, she bubbled, “We can dance. We can go take another photo.”
Shyly, Mattias took the lemonade and said to Frankie, “We should hang out some time.” He asked for her email address.
Frankie kept inviting many of the autistic students to dance. They didn’t always want to, but she threw herself into the music, flailing her arms and legs like crazy in an attempt to make them smile. Sometimes, she got a dance partner to pick up his feet in an understated but happy imitation of her silly moves.
She was delighted, and moved to see her friends trying just as hard to give the autistic students a fun night.
“Seeing my friends bond with all these people is the greatest experience,” she said.
Teachers at Kennedy Krieger incorporated prom into their lessons, principal Joanna Sandusky said. “We really have spent a significant amount of time this school year preparing the students,” Sandusky said. “We’ve been practicing dancing. We’ve been practicing being part of a bigger group, because that can be extremely challenging for a lot of our students.”
All that prom practice has had educational benefits, Sandusky said. The students have been more comfortable participating in school events like pep rallies. And speech language pathologist Maria Papageorgiou said she has seen their social skills, like greeting a person to start a conversation, improve during the frequent excursions into the community that are part of the school’s life skills curriculum.
“It was amazing. I’ve seen a lot of growth in our students,” Papageorgiou said. “[Prom] is fun. It keeps a student engaged. But it’s also a very meaningful way to teach — and then you see it carry over to everyday life.”
The great prom ritual of preening and posing began. The Einstein girls piled into a small room to change, emerging in fancy dresses. The Kennedy Krieger girls went home to complete their transformations — like Madison Plaisance, who said she picked her swooshing blue dress traced in glittering thread and her sparkling silver shoes because they made her look like Cinderella for the night.
And many of the autistic boys showered and shaved and donned their fancy clothes at the school, impressing the teachers and volunteers. The Einstein girls crowed over the boys’ polished appearances, then asked them to hold still so they could pin on boutonnieres.
Hannah Wayne, a teacher at Kennedy Krieger, looked at Sam Majane, one of her students, and said, “Sam, you look so good you’re going to make me cry.”
Over and over, the Einstein students asked the Kennedy Krieger students what part of prom they were most excited about. The dancing? The ice cream?
“Girls and food,” said Jaleel, 21, who will graduate from Kennedy Krieger in two weeks. He got his wish as soon as he arrived at the prom, where a young blond volunteer in a little black dress eagerly posed for a photo with him before he headed for the appetizers.
The teenage volunteers enthusiastically surrounded the guests of honor at the prom, making sure that each autistic student was repeatedly invited to dance, to take a photo, to have some food. Every student was also paired with a Kennedy Krieger teacher, who escorted anyone in need of a break into the designated quiet room.
Lauren’s brother Justin, 19, was having a blast. Seeing his friend Matthew playing with a light-up toy handed out by the DJ, he pointed and yelled, “Guys! Guys! Get a photo of this. Look at Matthew!”
Justin gravitated toward the photo booth, where Lauren tried to tease him into picking up a fake mustache when they took a sheet of silly pictures together. He whacked her playfully with the plastic axe instead. “Oh my gosh, I’m so happy,” Lauren gushed after taking the photo. “A lot of the kids who normally don’t participate are participating. They’re up dancing!”
Elise Nikolich, 17, asked Sam to dance. “Do you watch ‘The Jungle Book?’” he asked her. He peppered her with the same question about a string of Disney movies while sometimes holding her hands and jogging in place to the tune of “Shake It Off.”
Nearby, a circle of the high school volunteers, clad in their prom finery, shouted out every lyric of the Taylor Swift song’s spoken-word interlude. It was hard to tell that Lauren Mitchum, 15, the one autistic student in the circle, was any different.
Mitchum turned to the girl next to her when the song ended and asked her name. “Nice job, Tali,” she said.
Lauren and her friends formed a circle for another popular song. As prom-goers do across America, they whooped and cheered for the best dancer, encouraging him to show off his moves in the middle of the adoring ring.
Jimmy Ventura might have trouble communicating, but he sure can dance. He grooved to “Uptown Funk,” and as the song reached its climax — “hey, hey, hey, hey!” — he pointed to the disco ball in triumph.
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