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There are numerous, completely justified reasons why any teen, including a teen on the autism spectrum, may hesitate to attend a school dance. However, with the right supports, you can help to mitigate the sensory overload and manage the stressors that often accompany a school dance or social event.
By Jessica Pappagianopoulos, MA
Take a moment to reminisce over your first school dance. The school gym, where you played dodge ball that very afternoon, is a bit crowded with sweaty teenagers. Excessively bright lights are flashing on and off in no predictable pattern. You feel the pressure to socialize, but the difficulty of small talk is exacerbated by the loud music obstructing your hearing. A slow song comes on and anxiety strikes as you suddenly realize you should ask someone to dance.
Now, reflect on this same memory and focus on the positive aspects. Shopping for a new dress that sparkles in just the right way, or a tie the exact shade of blue to match your companion’s outfit. Catching the eye of a certain person and gravitating towards them on the dance floor. Swaying to a slow song. An enchanted evening that leaves lasting memories of your teen years.
Every teenager should have the opportunity to experience this high school milestone if they so desire. As the holidays approach, schools may begin to advertise their winter formals or holiday dances. There are numerous, completely justified reasons why any teen, including a teen on the autism spectrum, may hesitate to attend. However, with the right supports, you can help to mitigate the sensory overload and manage the stressors that often accompany a dance. The following strategies may be beneficial as you prepare your adolescent for this new experience:
Preview and Plan
Develop a schedule and social story about the order of events. Begin with getting ready for the dance and finish with coming home at the end of the night. Preview that there will be other activities to engage in besides dancing (e.g., talking with friends or hanging by the snack table). To reduce anticipatory anxiety, discuss an exit plan in the event they may want to leave early. Depending on preference, this may be implemented verbally via a discussion or concretely written down, such that your teen may bring it with them the night of the event.
For many adolescents, food is a priority. Consider contacting the school to find out what food will be provided and when it will be available. Will there be dinner or snacks that your teen enjoys? If not, integrate a pre-dance dinner into the schedule.
Envision the physical environment of the dance. Is the dance taking place in a familiar or unfamiliar space? If the dance is being held in a new setting outside the school, visit the space with your teen. Create a visual map and demarcate quiet places to take breaks. Watch videos of other school dances to paint a clear picture of the atmosphere.
Address Sensory Needs
Recently, I asked a few teen participants in the Aspire program about their experiences at school dances. They told me that they most disliked the crowds on the dance floor and the loud music blaring from the speakers. To combat such factors, ensure that your teen arrives prepared with tools and strategies. Remind them of quiet spaces far away from the DJ’s speakers, such as hallways, break rooms, or stepping outside. Pack headphones if they are especially sensitive to loud music. Additionally, they may want to bring along a preferred fidget or object that provides comfort.
Think mindfully about the question plaguing every person who attends a dance: “What to wear?” Wearing heels that make it difficult to walk, a stiff button-down shirt, or a dress with scratchy sequins may lead to an uncomfortable evening for anyone. However, such sensory issues may be exacerbated for an individual on the spectrum. If formal wear is required, spend time having your teen try on clothes that are most comfortable for them. Make compromises when possible. Given that some schools may send students home if clothes do not align with the dress code, it may be beneficial to consult with the school before the event.
Regardless of whether you are a wallflower sitting on the bleachers or the life of the party, dances may be stressful for everyone. Encourage your teen to engage in preferred stress management techniques before the dance, so that they arrive at the event in a relaxed state. Also, ensure that they have “in the moment” relaxation techniques up their sleeves to utilize during the dance.
Navigate Awkward Social Aspects Together
A school dance can present many opportunities to feel awkward. Explicitly talking through the abstract social demands that a dance entails may help to break down some of the difficulties. For example, discuss how to ask someone to dance, and how to accept or politely decline a request. It may even be helpful to write a script and rehearse. Preview who they plan to ask to dance. A friend? A date? A girl, boy, or non-binary peer?
Your teen may be adamantly against dancing with others. That’s okay. However, discuss potential reasons behind why they may want to accept a dance, as well as what it means when someone asks them to dance (i.e., incorrect social assumptions they must spend all their time at the dance with only that person if they say yes).
When practicing how to dance, turn to everyone’s reliable friend, YouTube. Start by looking up videos of popular line dances (e.g., “The Electric Slide”). Practicing these together as a family can be fun. If your teen would like, also find videos of slow dancing. Discuss where to place hands, conversation topics while dancing, and how to end a dance. It may be easier to dance along to familiar songs. Most DJ’s will take requests. Work with your teen to write down a short list of preferred songs they may bring and show to the DJ and how to ask for a song.
When asked, Aspire participants also shared that “not knowing people” made past school dances uncomfortable and less appealing. It is intimidating for anyone to walk into a dance alone and encounter a sea of unknown faces. Encourage your teen to go with a familiar peer. Additionally, suggest that they devise a plan with their friends if they lose each other on the dance floor, such as agreeing to meet by the water fountain.
The Main Takeaway
In talking through such strategies, instill in your teen that the purpose of the dance is to have fun! There should be no pressure or expectation to stay for the entirety, or to break out fancy dance moves. There is no one right way to enjoy a dance. They should experience the dance how they would most like to experience it, regardless of whether that means chatting on the bleachers with a few friends or being in the middle of the dance floor busting a move.
Using the suggestions discussed in this blog, a school dance can be a fun and memorable social event. To kick off the New Year and celebrate the winter season, Aspire is pleased to be hosting our First Annual Winter Masquerade Ball on January 6, 2018 for current or recent participants ages 14 – 18. For more information about this event or our other Teen & Adult Programs, please contact us.
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