September 18, 2016 by whirlyjoy
This year Aida has started a pre-vocational program as part of her school day. It’s in the mailroom of the district’s main administrative building, where she spends two hours every morning before taking a school bus to her high school to finish out the day in her self-contained “life skills” classroom.
“Would Aida be able to wear more business-appropriate clothes?” her teacher asked me last year when she was presenting this opportunity. The subtext being, will we be able to get her to wear anything but oversized men’s T-shirts with captions on them, and baggy sweat pants? I was slightly incredulous at the question, because this after all is Seattle, where the concession to office wear might involve a fresher, newer fleece jacket and a clean pair of khaki shorts. Also I’m a strong proponent of allowing my daughter as much loose-fitting comfort as she needs to cope with a world that is full of sensory bombardment of all kinds. Aida has trouble transitioning from short to long sleeves and back, between seasons — she’ll spend a few days each spring pulling at her short sleeves to try to stretch them down for the familiar sense of sheathing that she’d gained over the winter — and I didn’t see much point in making her learn to adapt to sharp collars and small buttons and tight-waisted slacks.
Kim explained, though, that clothing choices are part of how she tries to teach her students some of the social awareness involved in having a job. She agreed that, this being Seattle, black yoga pants and some more subdued or dressy tops would be a perfectly acceptable option. And I knew that anything that can buttress Aida’s social awareness will serve her well in the future, even if I had some doubts about whether this approach would work for her.
It turns out that Aida’s caregivers at her house have been dying for the chance to dress her in some more frilly and feminine garb. They are mostly women, many of them immigrants from East Africa in lovely flowing garments, or young and colorful twenty-somethings with far more energy than I. They enjoy keeping her nails painted in bright purples and hot pinks, and brush her hair with a careful part between her curls, and over the summer they would sweetly ask me when I was going to shop for her “school clothes.”
I did give it a try a few times. I’ll admit my efforts were halfhearted at best, and not helped by Aida’s complete indifference to the process. Mostly, to get her to try clothes on, I have to count out a small number of items — three is about her limit on any given day — and prompt her through each one, with a promise of a more satisfying activity when she’s done (dessert, or a trip to the park to swing). That means that her goal is to get through these three items as quickly as possible, while mine is to check out the fit and try to figure out if she’ll actually wear it or not once I’ve paid for it and hung it in her closet. In other words, we are at complete cross-purposes, because now Aida whips her clothes off before the door to the dressing room even falls shut and struggles into and then immediately out of one garment after another. Then, standing amid the puddled items whose actual fit and appropriateness I’ve had no time to suss out, she triumphantly signs “swing park now yes” and takes my arm to pull me out the door.
By the time Aida’s 18th birthday rolled around, at the end of the summer, I guess that the house staff had given up on me, because a group of the women got together and took her shopping themselves. They came back just in time for her party with a couple of loose-fitting blouses, one a muted floral and the other black with lace trim. And a long, silver necklace to add that final touch of… social awareness, I suppose.
“We thought maybe she could dress up a little for her party,” they told me, “and then she’ll have these clothes for work, too.”
Posh Nana thwarted the first part of this plan. Posh Nana wears nothing but soft, cotton, elasticized clothing herself, unable like Big Jane before her to tolerate scratchy lace and nylon or solid waistbands — although Posh Nana’s clothing choices are designer-labeled in black and the occasional shade of gray, quite different in effect from Aida’s wardrobe. At any rate, she was horrified at the thought of putting her beloved granddaughter in clothing she herself could never tolerate. “Aida won’t put those itchy tops on!” she whispered to me, after she’d taken over the party dressing task to get her into a rainbow T-shirt and pink sweats, “I hope they kept the receipts!”
“Try out her new clothes later,” I whispered to staff, “when the party excitement has calmed down.” And that evening they sent me a photo of Aida in her floral blouse and necklace.
School started up again the following week. “Aida has been beautifully dressed for work!” her teacher reported. Aida has adapted quickly so far to the demands of her job training, where she is fine with the actual mail sorting and impatient with such things as orientation and team meetings, during which she’ll turn to her aide and sign “work” in an attempt to get on with things. In the mornings she wears her silver necklace with her business wear, and when she gets to the classroom at lunchtime, she carefully takes off the delicate chain and hangs it on the hook with her backpack.
So it seems that Aida’s big tees and sweatpants were a coping strategy more for me than for her. I was burned out from trying to shop for her and with her all these years — and afraid to spend more money uselessly, as has happened with so many purchases of the wishful thinking variety over the years. Aida it seems is ready for new and wonderful things — painted nails, and lace, and a silver necklace, and a job. And I’m so grateful that there are others in her life who care for her, and will help to move her along on her own voyage of discovery when I alone am unable to see where she might be able to go.