Autism and saving the date

Lena Rivkin

My brother never went to the prom. He never had a high school graduation. Since my brother Phillip is profoundly autistic and has never spoken, none of these personal milestones were expected of him. My parents and I found our own ways to celebrate Phillip’s achievements and his life. But the events that normative families are routinely immersed in (and frequently upended by) - proms, holiday dances, art shows, team sports, field trips, graduations, etc., are rituals that can and should highlight our special needs family member’s journey of their lives.

As Phillip’s only sibling, I was the one for whom all the above life events happened to, which in a way compounded my guilt/sadness at being the ‘normal’, therefore celebrated one. I didn’t know how much I missed a ritual celebrating the highlights of my brother’s life until I was invited to one.

I received a phone call from Ingrid Mares, Phillip’s Program Manager at Tierra del Sol, telling me that Phillip was going to be receiving a recognition certificate honoring his artwork. Of course I was thrilled to attend. Then, when I received the Save The Date to the Sunland Celebration, I knew this was going to be my chance to clap and cheer for my brother.

Tierra del Sol Foundation in Sunland, California has been Phillip’s school for the past nine years. Tierra del Sol is an educational center dedicated to enabling adults with developmental disabilities to realize their greatest potential. The staff is exceptional. They are highly dedicated, empathic and respectful of everyone and enjoy what they do. As an artist, and as the daughter of an artist, it’s especially meaningful that Phillip attends a deeply creative and innovative school where he has been encouraged to grow, explore and bloom.

Everyone was to dress up for the event and I believe Phillip stood a little straighter and prouder in his black slacks and lovely gray dress shirt. My good friend Dr. Anne Schmidt, a huge supporter of Phillip, was thrilled to be part of Phillip’s celebration. When Phillip saw that Anne, one of his best friends had come, he had a big smile on his face and I knew he felt the importance of this ritual. The room was packed with friends and family assembled to honor the achievements of their special sibling, child or friend.

When Lelani Dixon, the Program Director, spoke about Phillip’s accomplishments in art, slides of his work were displayed on a large screen for the audience to admire. Then Susie Ayala, a core class instructor who teaches creative arts as well as Aztec dancing, spoke warmly about how quickly she was able to teach Phillip embroidery. I was aglow with pride.

When Phillip was called to walk up to the podium and receive his certificate everyone in the audience clapped for him. I could clearly see in my brother’s face that he knew and more importantly, that he felt he was being celebrated. In this event, and in so many other ways, Tierra del Sol does indeed live up to my favorite sentence in their mission statement - “We believe our community is stronger when all of its members are valued and appreciated.”

After the ceremony, we stood in the shade and posed for photos of Phillip with his art and his teachers. I threw my arm around my brother’s shoulder and we held up pieces of his colorful, vibrant artwork. It was only later, when looking at the photos that I realized Phillip was beaming at the camera. I don’t recall ever seeing my brother have a bigger, prouder smile.

Rituals are chosen opportunities. Everyone, absolutely everyone deserves to feel that celebrated.

Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles.

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