Looking back I can hardly believe that I took Dylan to Disney on Ice last year. At the time, he was very unsettled; there were regular incidents in the home and day centre and Dylan was on 2:1 support in the community. Life with Dylan was unpredictable and could be challenging but, because nobody involved in his care could figure out what was underlying the behaviour, it was difficult to know how best to support him. Against this context, I am amazed I went alone with Dylan to the show.
Occasionally I do something like that: step out into the road instead of hugging the pavement, waiting for a cautious gap in the traffic. And it was a risk: Dylan likes Disney but he was not used to going to crowded events; wasn’t familiar with the venue (the Sheffield Arena); and didn’t have a good track record with ‘live’ shows. Although Dylan had coped with a couple of autism-friendly theatre performances previously, live events had mostly been unsuccessful. As well as not being comfortable with audience participation, Dylan doesn’t like to see his favourite Disney characters adopt unfamiliar narratives or appear other than the way they are represented in film.
There was plenty, then, for me to be anxious about when I took Dylan to Disney on Ice the first time. I was so focused on the need to manage Dylan, and to stay alert to any potential challenge, that it wasn’t until after the event I realised it had been a success. In his undemonstrative way, I thought to myself, Dylan had enjoyed himself. This was confirmed for me when, some months after the production, I found Dylan looking at the programme from the show. Since then he has frequently taken it down from his shelves; in particular, Dylan likes to look at a photo of Pinocchio leaping in the air, legs outstretched, hands touching his feet.
After the success of last year I decided to take Dylan to Disney on Ice again this year. When I collected him from his care home yesterday evening a member of staff said: ‘I bet you’re looking forward to it aren’t you?’ ‘Actually’, I replied, ‘it’s not really my cup of tea. I’m doing this for Dylan’.
I wasn’t entirely sure, however, whether Dylan understood the plan; he had ‘Disney on Ice’ on his schedule but as we turned off the motorway at the ‘wrong’ exit (i.e. not the one for home) I heard him moan softly in the back of the car as if disappointed. But once we arrived it became clear that Dylan knew exactly what was afoot (or askate) as he led me confidently up a staircase to enter by the same door as last year, re-tracing our footsteps exactly.
This time, however, I had bought seats in the bay reserved for disabled spectators. One of the things that had been challenging for Dylan last year was the lack of personal space around the seats in the Arena; in the middle of a row, Dylan had appeared to feel hemmed in and uncomfortable. Dylan is noise-sensitive and finds small children difficult; while noise and children are inevitable at such a show, it is their proximity which can be particularly distressing for Dylan and the disabled bay had appeared, from the floor plan, to offer a potential solution. Although I don’t often claim ‘disabled’ space for Dylan, on this occasion I think it helped enormously.
Initially reluctant to sit on a regular chair (rather than in a fixed stadium seat) in an area which wasn’t clearly demarcated, once Dylan accepted the space it gave him lots of freedom. He could, for example, bounce up and down on his chair without interfering with the enjoyment of that of anyone else. Dylan’s bouncing is often so extreme it needs regulating in public space (and sometimes in the home). I have never been completely sure why Dylan bounces but last night, because I didn’t feel it necessary to discourage, I was able to observe more freely. Dylan’s bouncing at Disney on Ice, I decided, was definitely joyous (even though this year there was no Pinocchio).
For me, however, the best thing last night – and I don’t think I have ever seen this before – is that Dylan applauded appropriately after each scene. At first I thought he was simply copying me but at some point in the show I noticed he was clapping before me and, once or twice, without me. Another great breakthrough for Dylan was that twice he turned to me and said ‘laughing’, tracing a circle in the air around his face with his finger. It was, I assumed, Dylan’s way of telling me he was having a good time.
Dylan was also at his mischevious best last night. Towards the end of the show (how long was he planning this?) he made a dash for it, sprinting at top speed down the staircase next to his chair. It took me a moment to gather my wits; Dylan was already half way down the aisle and heading for the ice. I had visions of him vaulting the rink-side and slithering towards Elsa and Anna, watched by thousands. I tore after Dylan (abandoning my valuables in a vulnerable gangway) who, seeing me in pursuit, changed course and headed back up the stairs and into the arms of a watching steward. ‘Gosh he was quick’, she said, smiling. She had taken a photo of us before the show and, I think, had enjoyed watching Dylan: he was exuding such delight I’m not surprised. ‘Disney on Ice not my cup of tea’? I’ve changed my mind.