A Sleepover Story
I was holding my breath when the doorbell sounded. “They’re here!” I cried. My third-grade self was hosting her very first sleepover, and boy oh boy, was she nervous.
True, I’d been to slumber parties before, but until that evening, I had never played hostess. But this was my eighth birthday, and what I wanted more than anything else was to have a sleepover. I invited my closest friends: two next-door neighbors, and two girls from school. I’d planned the dessert menu (cake with vanilla frosting and chocolate-rainbow nonpareils) and slumber-party itinerary (movies, games, and gossip) well in advance. And I’d also spent time talking with my parents about Willie’s involvement in the party.
Though I didn’t know much about autism at the time, I did know that a giggling group of girls might be overwhelming for my little brother. (This was before Willie started struggling with aggression and self-injurious behavior, but even so, he could cause a ruckus if he wanted to.) And even if he remained calm, my friends would get a healthy dose of Willie’s idiosyncrasies. If he spent time with us, he’d invariably sing Disney songs and quote movies ad nauseum. He’d run in and out of rooms, making proclamations that didn’t make sense unless one had memorized the script for “The Little Mermaid.”
In short, I was afraid that he’d be himself, and that my friends wouldn’t know how to deal with that. My third-grade self was concerned about making a good impression, about having a “cool” party. I was self-conscious about my own appearance, too, since I had a cast on my left arm. A fall on the front lawn a few weeks prior had resulted in a simple fracture, and wearing a cast was challenging. The girl who just wanted to blend in was forced to stand out. And I write with my left hand, so having a broken left arm hampered me in my quest for perfect penmanship. (In the third grade, having an elegant cursive script was definitely on my priority list.)
With all these factors combined, there was a lot at stake at this sleepover. I was a bundle of nerves, but fortunately, my parents had had some valuable preparatory conversations with both my brother and me. As the big night approached, we went over each aspect of the evening together: who would sit where at the supper table, how long Willie would stay downstairs in the living room with me and the girls, when Mom and Dad would say goodnight and move Willie through his evening routine in the upstairs bathroom. In short, we had a game plan.
Every step of the way, we knew how Willie was going to be included in the festivities. We had contingency plans in case he started to seem agitated. And most importantly, I had a sense of solidarity. I felt like our parents were with me in my desire to make this special evening go well. They didn’t criticize me for feeling nervous; instead, they understood that inviting a group of people over to our home was a step of faith, a real social risk. Looking back, I am struck by how they met me where I was—afraid, uncertain, excited, a bundle of contradictions. Wanting to both include my brother and have him go away. Wanting to make a good impression on my friends, and wanting to trust that they’d accept me and my family as we were.
All the planning paid off, and the evening flew by. After the first few nerve-wracking minutes, I relaxed and started having a good time. Willie was at his best—relaxed, kind, and totally into the festivities. In looking at photos from that evening, I am struck by the tongue-sticking-out fun in his expression, and the sidelong look of relief in mine.
Even at that age, I remember thinking that that night was exceptional. As a special needs sibling, I knew better than to take “smooth sailing” for granted. I knew that life did not often go according to plan. And when things did go well, gratitude was the right response. Now, twenty years later, I hold these pictures in my hands, giving thanks once more.