I watch my daughter in her ballet class. She is so tiny next to the other girls–lean, muscular, but so skinny and a head shorter than most of them. I watch her concentrate hard on her feet, on placing them in the right position and still trying to keep her balance. I see her suck in her lower lip and play with the hem of her skirt, betraying her nervousness and concentration, and I hold my breath, silently praying that she can do this. I watch her look at the girls, watching their steps, before lifting her hands into position and leading with her right foot across the dance floor. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, along with a soft “YES!” and a grin from ear to ear. Her movements are choppy; her rhythm doesn’t match the other girls. But to me she is the most graceful ballerina in the room. She gets to the other side of the room, and I see a soft quiet grin light up her face. She knows she nailed it. I have to move away from the window before she sees the tears in my eyes.
The tears weren’t always happy tears. I always new something wasn’t right with my little Squirrel. She was such a “difficult” infant! She cried all the time, only let me hold her, wouldn’t sleep well, wouldn’t take a bottle or eat well. She was scared of everything–noisy toys made her cry. Sudden movements made her jump. The changing table terrified her, as did any of the typical baby equipment–strollers, swings, high chairs, bouncers. I told everyone who would listen that something wasn’t right. And everyone said, “She’s fine. That’s just how she is.” And after awhile, I bought that theory–that’s just who she is.
And you know what? She WAS fine. She was so smart from the beginning. She could figure out how things work–no childproof locks could hold her back. She met most of her developmental milestones right on time. She talked early, and talked a lot! She was funny, and–after those dreadful first months–most of the time she was happy. We knew how to cope with the things that bothered her. We knew what would trigger a meltdown, and we avoided those things. We knew what made her happy, and we provided more of those things. Looking back, we offered a pretty consistent sensory diet to her without even knowing what we were doing or why it worked–only that it did. As she got older, she developed her own coping mechanisms. She started school, and excelled. She made friends and played well with the other children. She was fine.
Squirrel has always been just a bit, well, clumsy. I remember pointing out to the pediatrician at her four-year checkup that her knees knocked into each other, and she tripped over her own feet all the time. The doctor said she’d outgrow it, and suggested we put her into dance or gymnastics to help build her muscles and increase her coordination. So we did–first, gymnastics, then tai kwon do. I would watch her in these classes. She would try so hard to do what the teacher wanted, but could never quite get it right. It’s hard to watch your child try and fail, over and over again. Eventually, she didn’t want to go anymore and we pulled her from her classes. She was still clumsy. She still tripped over her own feet. And now, her self-esteem was plunging too.
And, for me, that little nagging voice came back, telling me again that maybe she wasn’t alright. But life threw us a curve-ball and I pushed that voice away to deal with a more immediate issue.
Munchkin was born shortly after Squirrel’s third birthday. He was such a different baby–so easy compared to her! He had his little quirks from the beginning, but compared to the major hurdles we had to overcome when Squirrel was his age, it was nothing we couldn’t handle! Until that day came when we couldn’t handle it anymore.
When Squirrel was 7, we spent the better part of the year focusing on her brother. Munchkin was seen by neurologists and developmental therapists for months, and then we were told that our beautiful little boy was on the autism spectrum. I dealt with this diagnosis the way many parents have told me they did too. I cried, I mourned the loss of my dreams and plans, then I went into fix-it mode. I poured all my energy into Munchkin and “making him better” for the better part of a year. And then, I accepted it. My son, my wonderful, creative, happy little boy, has autism. He is who God made him to be, and I love him for who he is. But his story is for another day–this is Squirrel’s story.
While we focused on her brother, Squirrel struggled to make sense of everything. Her grades began slipping. She was in trouble at school almost every day. She became very emotional, very moody. She began doing foolish things, making stupid choices without thinking about the outcome. We chalked it up to the stress our whole family was under, dealing with a new diagnosis and the pressure of all the therapies and appointments and such. I look back now, and know that we failed in so many ways with her. We didn’t see her struggles for what they were–signs of her own developmental and neurological issues.
In the midst of all this, Squirrel begged to take ballet. And we gave in, mostly out of guilt for all the energy and attention her brother was getting. But it was the ballet classes that finally gave me a wake-up call into all that was going on in her little brain and body. I watched her in that first year of ballet, and she was so awkward. She didn’t know her right from her left, and she couldn’t coordinate movements that required the use of both sides of her body. She lost her balance so much, and struggled to keep up with the other kids. It got to the point that I couldn’t bear to watch her classes, sure she would give up anytime. Yet she left every class exhausted, but feeling proud of herself. She told me it was so hard, but she loved it!
This opened my eyes a little. I started questioning everything else. I knew a little bit about SPD from things I had read about autism. Squirrel fit the profile like it was written for her. Then her 3rd grade teacher mentioned ADHD, and recommended evaluation. We decided to go all out, and have her evaluated by the same team that had diagnosed her brother. Her diagnosis came back a few weeks ago: Neurodevelopmental Delays due to Sensory Processing Disorder, with ADHD, OCD, Depression/Anxiety Disorder, and Tic Disorder. Such a lot of labels for such a little girl, but all making sense and explaining what is going on with her so well.
And so it is with this fresh knowledge of how my daughter struggles with the world around her, that I watch her dance. And I see her struggles, but I tear up because I also see hope. Hope because she sticks with it. Hope because she tries so hard. Hope because I now know what she needs and how I can help her. And hope, because she really is “just fine.” And will be more fine everyday from now on, because now we know. This is the beauty of the dance: finding power in the knowledge, and pressing on to overcome the obstacles. And my girl is one powerful little dancer.