How to hold a prom that empowers neurodivergent kids

  • This school is making prom more approachable for neurodivergent students
  • The room takes away the stress of planning, outfits and costs for students
  • Planning requires sensitivity to students' needs

Students dancing at Ivy Street’s prom in 2022. Courtesy: Photographer Darlene DeVita, via Ivy Street.

(NewsNation) — Prom season can be stressful enough for your average high schooler. But the anxiety around prom can be even worse for students who are neurodivergent — those who are on the autism spectrum or have other conditions that change the way they perceive the world.

This is a challenge that the Ivy Street School in Brookline, Massachusetts, tackles every year when it hosts its annual prom.

The outplacement school’s approximately 50 students are drawn from neurodivergent backgrounds and have struggled either academically or socially at other institutions before they were placed at Ivy Street. The school also has a broad range of ages, with students who are 13 through 22.

“With that comes this real call for us to create some of those normative high school experiences that students are missing out on by not being in their public school, but also gives us a real opportunity to do those experiences in a way that center our student population,” said Natasha Kaufman, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the school.

Kaufman and other school administrators take special steps to make sure the prom is inviting to all students with special needs. Here’s some of her advice.

Give students a preview of what to expect

To help students prepare for prom, the school hands out a preview sheet that lays out the general schedule of events, what attendees are expected to wear, and other key details. The school also communicates to students in person.

“And we answer all of their questions which, if you know if you went to prom in your high school, that’s probably not something that happens. And I think that that really kind of eases the anxiety around prom,” Kaufman said.

Invite everyone but make it optional

“At other schools you might be expected to register for prom with a table of people so you need a group in advance and know who you’re going to go with and who you’re going to spend time with at the event. Similarly, at other schools, you might be expected to bring a date,” Kaufman said.

Neither are true at Ivy Street. Everyone’s invited and there’s no expectation to bring a date or any number of friends.

“So there’s no real social pressure leading up to the event,” she said.

Attendance at Ivy Street’s prom is also optional, but last year 33 out of 49 students RSVPed to attend.

Respect students’ sensory needs

Some individuals who are on the autism spectrum and others with special needs can be uncomfortable with loud sounds or music.

Thanks to the pandemic, Ivy Street had already moved their prom outside, and they’ve decided to keep that arrangement for other reasons.

“The outdoor space makes it a little less overwhelming from a sensory standpoint,” Kaufman said, noting that all the space means that kids can choose to stand near the DJ or move to an area that’s less loud.

Have many activities

Not all students want to dance all the time.

“We also set up activities that aren’t just dancing and eating. When you think of high school prom, you think of, ‘Okay I’m going to go I’m going to spend most of the time on the dance floor, some of the time eating,’ and that’s really the activities,” Kaufman said.

Ivy Street includes all sorts of activities at its proms. In the past, they’ve had everything from arts and crafts to games and even a petting zoo with live animals.

A student enjoying the animal activities at Ivy Street’s prom. Courtesy: Photographer Darlene DeVita, via Ivy Street.

Take the stress out of outfits

Dressing up for prom, especially for teenagers who may have never had any experience with formal events, can be stressful. Ivy Street removes some of that stress by offering outfits to all students who want them at no cost.

“We take that piece of anxiety and also just piece of cost, resources away from students by providing dresses or tuxedos or suits here at the school,” she said.

Solutions

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