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Student with Asperger’s overcomes challenges to attend Hopkinton prom

Lizzie Busby (left) stands with her sister Maggie Conn, who lives in Dover. Maggie did Lizzie's makeup for the prom.
(Courtesy of Toni Verville)

Lizzie Busby (left) stands with her sister Maggie Conn, who lives in Dover. Maggie did Lizzie's makeup for the prom. (Courtesy of Toni Verville)

Lizzie Busby is an 18-year-old junior at Hopkinton High School.

She has lived in Contoocook with her mother and stepfather for five years now, and she has two older sisters and an older brother. At school, she’s involved with the robotics team, and she has an internship three days a week working with intellectually disabled students at the school. On May 17, she attended the Hopkinton prom on the MS Mount Washington cruise boat.

And today, her prom picture has 113,144 Facebook “likes” after it was reposted by Autism Speaks on the organization’s page, celebrating the courage it took for her to attend by herself and face the challenges of life with an autism spectrum disorder.

Lizzie was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in middle school, a condition now considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. The decision to go to prom was last-minute, she said.

“I wanted to go, but I wasn’t really sure. I couldn’t really find anyone to go with, and then about a week before the prom I was upset and I didn’t want to go,” she said. “But I changed my mind and I ended up going.”

The night had its ups and downs and it pushed past the edges of her comfort zone, but she said it was worth it.

“I thought I was going to have a horrible time and be alone there, but I was wrong,” Lizzie said. “The most challenging part was overcoming the fear of actually going to the prom. I had this fear in my head that I was going to have a terrible time, but I had to get over it. I realized that almost everyone in my grade was going, and I had already bought the dress and everything, so I just faced it head-on.”

The path to prom

Lizzie returned to Hopkinton

in March after attending a boarding school for students on the autism spectrum in Connecticut. Her family moved to Contoocook five years ago so she could attend Hopkinton for eighth grade after struggling to adapt to the environments at Rundlett Middle School and Parker Academy in Concord.

“I tend to get fixated on little details instead of the big picture, and sometimes that can be a problem,” she said. “I have problems socializing, like I’m not good at picking up social cues. I’m all right at maintaining friendships, but it’s getting those friendships to begin with, that’s the hard part for me. And I’ve had a lot of troubles in the past with like anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, because a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s such a lack of socialization that it sometimes really bothers me.”

“It’s a very difficult diagnosis to gather,” said her mother, Toni Verville. “There are a lot of facets to it.”

Busby was diagnosed in the summer before beginning sixth grade and over the years, her experience with Asperger’s has changed.

“As a child, some things were a lot worse, like I had struggles at home getting along with my family. I had a lot more emotional problems because when I was younger, I was bullied a little bit in school so I had a lot of stresses regarding school,” she said. “Eventually, we ended up moving here because I needed a new school to go to, I just was not happy where I was. And I’ve definitely grown a lot since then, but it’s not like it’s completely gone.”

Verville calls Asperger’s an “invisible disability” because it’s not obvious at first glance to peers.

“With Lizzie, it’s not visible, except for a lack of eye contact. The connection is missing there with the social cues, and that’s where their biggest struggle is,” Verville said. “They’re very smart, very intelligent, but if you throw them in a classroom with their peers, they’re going to struggle. If other students understood better what is Asperger’s, what is an autism spectrum disorder, that would help – it’s a huge educational curve for people to understand.”

Holly Charron, a special education teacher and case manager, has been at Hopkinton High for 20 years now. In the school setting, social centers are extremely stressful to students on the autism spectrum, she said.

“Cafeterias, locker areas, hallways – those are the hardest,” she said. “The cafeteria, for example, is so difficult because there’s so much activity, it’s so noisy and there are so many decisions that you have to make there. You’re bombarded, and no one wants to be seen as inept. And students on the spectrum, sometimes they feel completely inept.”

The big night

Prom can be an overwhelming occasion for any high school student, Charron said, but for someone living with an autism spectrum disorder, the anxiety can be off the charts.

“The week before prom, Lizzie’s anxiety was really high because the prom was on the Mount Washington state cruise boat, which is about an hour away, and it’s a boat so once you’re on, you’re stuck there,” Verville said. “There’s no way off, so that can be a scary thing for someone.”

In addition to the distance, the noise and sensory stimulation involved can be overwhelming for people on the spectrum because their brains aren’t wired to tune out certain noises, Verville said.

“Leading up to it, it was a roller coaster,” she said. “Was she going, wasn’t she going. . . . We spoke with the teachers that were going to be there so they were the ones that Lizzie felt comfortable going to if she felt uncomfortable being on the boat at all during the three hours.”

Lizzie wore a floor-length purple dress and had her hair done, and her sister Maggie Conn of Dover came to do her makeup.

“When I got on the boat, someone invited me to sit down with their group and have dinner, so I sat down with that group. And then afterwards, a few of us went up on the top deck and we just hung out there and played a game of cards,” Lizzie said. “And then after that, I kind of hung out by myself for a little while and then I went and started dancing with some friends.

“During one of the slow dances, I was standing by myself and one of the popular kids came up and asked me to dance, which made me feel really happy. And then I ended up having a really good time.”

Lizzie’s takeaway

Afterwards, Verville submitted the photo of Lizzie to Autism Speaks, who reposted it on their Facebook and Instagram. The aftermath has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

“As a parent, it can be an unbelievable struggle,” she said. “But in the end, you have someone like Lizzie, and when they make those kind of achievements it’s all worth it. It’s amazing to see them flourish in that environment, and that’s why she was so inspirational to these other families.”

Given the “invisible” nature of challenges faced by some of the high-functioning people on the autism spectrum, it can be hard for peers to know how to help their classmates. At Hopkinton, the smaller community is a “strong support system for everyone,” Charron said.

“For teenagers, it’s part of their developmental process to be part of something,” she said. “That’s the bottom line; it’s so basic to their needs. . . . It’s different from somebody with a disability that puts them in a wheelchair. You see that person and you know that he needs you to step aside to go down the ramp, or he may need help going across the street or something. But people with hidden disabilities struggle because you don’t know what’s going on with them. It’s unseen.”

Lizzie said the best part of the night was being included and sharing dinner, conversation and dancing with friends. Her advice for anyone nervous about prom or another big event: “Just suck it up and go.”

“You’re going to have a good time,” she said.

(Ann Marie Jakubowski can be reached at 369-3302 or ajakubowski@cmonitor.com.)

A wonderful story - uplifting and hopeful. It's great to see a young lady who is taking control of her disability, figuring out what works and doesn't work for her, and taking a chance. And kudos to those students who made the effort to understand Lizzie and include her in what ended up being a great night for her. Congratulations Hopkinton - Looks like you have a lot of young men and women - of all abilities - who will make your community a quality place to live for years to come.

Great story. Lizzie handled a situation that would make many people feel exposed and self-conscious. The touching response of her peers had to have helped her feel it was worth it. Brave girl.

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