This morning I asked Emma, “Do you want to wear pants or a dress to school today?”
“Pretty dress,” Emma said without hesitation.
“Okay. Which one?” I pulled two dresses out for her to choose from.
“Other one?” Emma said-asked. “This one?” She pulled at her red and white print skirt she’d worn just the day before.
“No. How about picking a different one. You just wore that one,” I said, wondering if I should let her wear it again. After all I wear a uniform of sorts to my studio most days – a pair of jeans and t-shirt of some kind. Her skirt had been washed and ironed, there was no reason why she couldn’t wear it twice in one week. Nic wears a school uniform to school everyday and I must admit it makes life easy.
When Emma was first diagnosed I became aware of how I was dressing her with painstaking care each morning. It was as though I were trying to cloak her autism in pretty dresses, making sure her hair was neatly braided with different colored ribbons. As she grew older I became less fastidious about her clothing, but I am still aware of my complicated feelings when I see her wearing some bizarre outfit of her own choosing. Often when a caregiver has let her choose what she wants with no editing. Socks worn with crocs, leggings that are too small, now resembling capris, the two inch gap of skin between pant and sock, the t-shirt in some color, ill-matched with the rest of the outfit. I inwardly cringe and I admonish myself for being so shallow. I just want her to fit in and when she’s dressed in such a way that only seems to advertise loudly how different she is, it breaks my heart. Still I do my best to temper those feelings.
“You rarely get the chance to be frivolous,” a friend of mine said the other day.
“But it’s ridiculous. I know,” I answered.
Once when I brought the subject up to my husband, Richard, he replied, “But people do respond differently to her when she’s wearing a pretty dress.”
And he’s right they do. They tell her how pretty she looks and she smiles and twirls around. I know it really is absurd, but I want people to be kind to her. I want people to smile at her and they do when she’s dressed nicely. I know how silly all of this sounds. I know this isn’t going to help her autism. I know I’m talking about something as idiotic as how she appears and has nothing to do with substance, but I also know that people react to her in a more complimentary way.
“Please don’t ever let her wear a velour track suit,” I begged Richard before leaving on a trip a few months ago.
“I love velour!” Richard said.
“Well of course you do, just don’t let her wear one, okay?”
“She doesn’t own a velour track suit,” he answered, seriously.
“Yeah, but you might feel compelled to buy one while I’m gone,” I said.
“It’s going to be okay, honey. I think I can handle this,” he said.
And of course he did handle it all beautifully while I was away, just as he always does.
“Okay. This one,” Emma said, patting at a pretty white, turquoise and orange skirt.
“Oh that’s perfect!” I said, pulling it out of the closet.
“It’s perfect!” Emma repeated, bouncing up and down on the bed.
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism go to: www.EmmasHopeBook.com