For Shayla Rudd, the prom is a nerve-racking challenge. Because of her autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, even her family doesn’t know how she will respond to the abundant stimuli at the event. A day before the prom, Shayla is even bothered by the sound of her mom’s swallowing. How can she handle the frenzy of a teen prom?
To lessen the anxiety, Shayla’s mom walks her through the details of the schedule three days in a row before the prom, from food to the setup of the dance. Hair and makeup are done over many hours with breaks at home so that Shayla can slowly build up to the peak moment at the prom. Her whole family and friends all devote their time to her preparation.
They want to make sure that the prom is a memory of success that will help her grow into an independent adult. “I think the best way to learn is to let her try and do it," said Shayla’s dad, Kelvin Rudd. "And, then, she succeeds. Then she understands that she can do things without having support from her family.”
Shayla's mom, Willishia Rudd, Jessica Kolle and her daughter, Kynlee, 6, left to right, help Shayla, 16, try on a dress for the Night to Shine prom event. Jessica nursed Shayla for six years since when she was six years old and couldn't talk or eat without a feeding tube. Their families have stayed close ever since.
On the night before the prom, Shayla practices with her mom how to pose while her dad watches. The poster that her long-time friend, Kaden Kolle, 16, brought her house with flowers hangs on the wall. "I wanted to give her the whole experience," Kaden said.
Shayla and her dad, Kelvin, say hello to their neighbor before the prom. "She really wanted to [go to the prom]," said Shayla's mom, Willishia Rudd. "We always encourage at least to try something first." Shayla's neighbors and friends visited her house on the prom day to celebrate the event.
Kaden gives Shayla a letter and a teddy bear as a gift for the prom. The letter writes, "Shayla, thank you so much for being an inspiration and such an amazing person overall. You have been such a blessing to me in more ways than I can count. Let's have fun tonight!"
Shayla clenches her fists because she feels nervous on her way to the prom. "We're scared," Rudd said about the prom night. "We don't know what to expect, but we're trying to say, 'OK, whatever comes up, if it's a challenge, we'll still meet it head on.' But she's making her future herself."
Shayla feels nervous and stops walking toward the red carpet. Kaden bends over and whispers to convince her. "I'm just trying to be there and be that rock for her," Kaden said. "Someone that can explain to her how things are and how she can overcome that. I just hope that throughout the years, I've given her a peace of mind that she's always got somebody there for her and she's got somebody to talk to."
Kaden and Shayla walk on the red carpet after the limousine ride at the Victoria West High School. As a surprise gift, Shayla's parents asked the organizer to turn on the song, "Look What God Gave Her," which Shayla said she wanted to listen when walking to school. Shayla couldn't stop smiling at the song and people cheering for her.
Shayla talks and laughs with her friends at the sensory room with a calm environment. After rocking her head up and down to the music a few times at the dance hall, Shayla would head back to the sensory room. With her sensory processing disorder, sound and movement around her often become overwhelming. Kaden followed her to wherever Shayla headed to calm herself down.
Shayla and her mom, Willishia, dance to the music. Shayla continued to dance to music throughout her ride back home. "It's just a door," Willishia said about a new experience like the prom for Shayla. "You gotta walk to the door. We don't know what's behind the door until we open it up."