Students with special needs at West Contra Costa Unified were full of smiles and laughter Saturday as they danced and partied at a prom event specifically tailored for them.

Saturday’s event, the first of its kind at West Contra Costa Unified, was planned for students with extensive support needs such as autism and moderate to severe intellectual abilities for whom the traditional prom — with loud music and extensive light displays — might be overstimulating.

Dozens of students and their families attended the event, which featured a sensory room, soft lights and support staff in order to comfort students experiencing sensory overload, which people with disabilities that cause hypersensitivity are prone to.

For Sonja Neely-Johnson, the district’s special education local plan area director, the prom was a milestone event. Apart from being one of the event’s organizers, she’s also the mother of a 21-year-old with special needs. When she saw him walk into the event Saturday, she said she was flooded with memories of doctors saying he would never be able to walk at all and other grim prognoses.

“Just being able to see my son walk into a dance, yeah, he has to have his little device with him because he needs that; it just warms my heart. I’ve actually been emotional all day,” Neely-Johnson said.

Students dressed up in tuxedos and prom dresses, danced, played games like limbo and posed for pictures in the high school cafeteria, which was selected because the building is smaller and slightly darker than a gym, in order to not overstimulate the students, said Guthrie Fleischman, director of secondary special education programs at West Contra Costa Unified.

According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, many people on the autism spectrum experience hypersensitivity to bright lights or certain light wavelengths, such as LED or fluorescent lights. The dance floor also featured fewer lights than that of a typical prom. Still, the music was loud enough to fill the room, and the DJ played popular hit songs.

Student Bianca Rios said her favorite part of the prom was being with all of her friends. Another student, Corinn Phillips, said she enjoyed dancing, especially to her favorite songs by Katy Perry.

One of the rooms in the cafeteria building was designated as a “sensory room” and staffed with an occupational therapist for students who felt overwhelmed. The room had beanbag chairs and soft lighting to comfort students, as well as sensory toys that students could spin, squish and stretch, to engage and regulate sensory needs.

The district’s special education department also made personal communication boards with pictures of phrases such as “It’s too loud,” “I like the decorations” and “I need a break” that nonverbal students could use to communicate.

In addition to the occupational therapists at the event, the prom also had about a 1:1 ratio of paraprofessionals to students, he said.

“It’s a different level of support that would be difficult to present in a traditional prom setting,” Fleischman said.

The idea for the prom came because families of students with special needs at West Contra Costa Unified organized a prom of their own last year, held at a charter school within the district. Though the event was small, the families who attended told the district’s special education department they had a great time, and department officials decided to throw an official West Contra Costa Unified one, inviting students in the transition program serving students aged 18 to 22.

Neely-Johnson said the goal is to eventually make traditional proms inclusive enough that all students and their families are comfortable attending — a prospect that worries some parents who fear their children with special needs would feel ostracized.

“I think until we get to a point as a society, we’re going to have both (proms for special needs students and traditional proms),” Neely-Johnson said.

Dozens of families attended Saturday’s event. Denise Miles, whose son Devin Phillips is 22 and in his last year of the transition program, said many of the families have known each other for years as their children grew up in classes together. Miles said she felt differently when Devin went to his high school’s traditional prom a few years earlier.

“When he went to the prom, I didn’t know a lot of those parents in general ed because we don’t really mix and mingle like that,” she said. “I hope (the district) continues to have something special for our kids.”

The biggest difference between this prom and a traditional one, Miles said, was that everyone was accepting of each other, and though her son is oftentimes “hollering and spinning,” people weren’t looking at him.

“They could just be themselves, whatever that is, and no one’s looking at them crazy and judging,” Miles said. “As a SPED (special education) parent, it’s a really good feeling to see because you always want your child to be accepted, and we have that here.”

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