Archive for March 2016
Some may tell you that people with Asperger’s lack empathy, but this is a misconception that could not be further from the truth. I recently had an experience that made me realize that it is possible for Aspies to be extremely empathetic, caring, and kind hearted.
As regular readers of my blog know, I recently said goodbye to a very special childhood mentor, teacher, and friend, Sally Maxwell. Last week, I lost yet another of my childhood mentors. Polly Dunn, who taught me dance from childhood through high school and who was a lifelong friend, passed away one week ago today.
After hearing the news of Polly’s death, I spent the next several hours calling, texting, and Facebook messaging many people from my hometown who knew Polly and mourning for her with them. All of a sudden, I got a message from my friend Kirsti. Kirsti is a 21-year-old with Asperger’s who I have had the pleasure of getting to know and forming a deep friendship with over the past two years. In the shock and sadness of Polly’s death, I had completely forgotten that I had promised Kirsti earlier in the day that I’d talk with her later that night.
I messaged Kirsti back, told her what had happened, and asked if we could possibly talk some other time. I also added that it was especially hard for me since it was so soon after Sally’s death.
Kirsti replied, “I know you feel sad now and want to cry, but instead you should be grateful that you had Sally and Polly in your life. And they loved you very much, and they wouldn’t want you to be sad. You need to be strong and thank God for having them in your life. And remember, someday you will see them again, but in the meantime, they want you to live a happy and healthy life while you are still on this earth.”
I was truly touched by Kirsti’s words. She was able to make me feel better and put things in perspective better than anyone else I had talked to that night. I thanked her, and she was eager to cheer me up and make me feel better. She changed the subject to a topic that she knew was going to make me happy, and thanks to her, I was able to smile and laugh again.
So, the next time someone tells you that people with Asperger’s lack empathy, tell them to think again. Aspies struggle with many things; however, they are capable of feeling emotions very deeply. I have seen proof of this many times with Kirsti. Despite her challenges, she also has many strengths. She is a gifted writer and has a great imagination. Not only is she good with words, but she is also adept at writing fiction about situations that she has not experienced herself. That is something that I have never been able to do as well as she does.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and I am grateful that I had people in my life like Sally and Polly who helped me realize my strengths and that I am so much more than my weaknesses. I hope that I can have a positive impact on Kirsti and other young people like her as well.
One week ago today, Polly Dunn, my childhood dance teacher passed away. Those of you who have read “Distracted Girl” know what a wonderful role model and major influence on my life she was. She was more than just a dance teacher. She was like a second mother to all of us dance students.
In addition to my ADHD, I also had some gross motor delays and poor coordination as a child. This made it difficult for me to participate in gym class, play sports, or do any other athletic activity. My parents signed me up for dance lessons, hoping that it would improve my coordination. Dance was challenging for me as well, and if I had studied with a more traditional dance teacher who emphasized structure and competition, it is likely that I would have quit dance at an early age and never returned.
However, Polly was far from a traditional dance teacher. Many dance teachers have competitions and give awards at recitals to their best dancers every year. Polly, on the other hand, often said, “I don’t believe that dance should be competitive. If you want to compete, play basketball or some other sport. At my dance school, the goal is not to be better than all the other dancers. It’s about being the best dancer that you can be, and it goes for each and every one of you.”
Polly often came up with creative ways to include dancers of all levels and abilities. For instance, one year she choreographed a dance to Whitney Houston’s version of the national anthem as the opening recital number. The more advanced dancers performed a complicated dance with lots of leaps, twists, and turns on the stage. Meanwhile, I marched down one of the aisles of the auditorium carrying an American flag. Another dancer with disabilities, Julie, marched down the other aisle, also with a flag. When we reached the stage, the other dancers were jumping and turning so much that no one even noticed Julie and me sneaking on the stage behind them. When it got to the line, “our flag was still there,” all the other dancers lay down on the stage and Julie and I waved our flags. Everyone applauded at the display of patriotism, and Julie and I felt proud to be a part of that moment.
Another instance of Polly’s inclusivity happened when I first danced on pointe. Like all young ballerinas, I was eager to progress to this exciting level. Pointe is performed wearing special toe shoes, and it requires the dancer to have taken several years of dance instruction so that her quadriceps muscles are strong enough to support her. Most girls are ready to dance on pointe at age 12, however, due to my poor coordination; I was still dancing in soft ballet shoes for beginners when I was 15. Eventually, Polly told me was ready to train for pointe. I worked hard, and Polly finally told me I was ready to dance on pointe late in May. Since it was only a few weeks before the recital, Polly didn’t have time to teach me a dance on pointe to perform that year. However, she found a way to accommodate me once again. She had the high school seniors who were graduating dance the finale, and then all of us dancers who were on pointe came out boureeing on our toes, formed a semi-circle around the graduating senior, and gracefully stretched out our arms in gesture to her. That was Polly’s way of including me on pointe in the recital. She never told any of the other dancers that she did so especially for me, so that I wouldn’t feel stigmatized or embarrassed. Another dance teacher might have waited until the following year for me to dance on pointe in the recital, however, Polly knew how hard I had worked and was eager to include me that year.
Those are just two of the many examples of how Polly sought to include all her dancers, regardless of ability. It is only recently that other dance schools are learning the importance of what Polly knew all along. Last year, I gave a presentation to dance teachers at the Boston Ballet’s adaptive dance program, a special program for dancers with disabilities. I gave them tips on how to make their school inclusive to all, and I talked about how Polly made her dance school inclusive to me and others.
Goodbye, Polly Dunn. We will never forget how you taught us not only to dance, but also to love and the importance of helping others. Now you are in Heaven dancing with God and the angels, and teaching the little cherubim their plies and arabesques.