What My Special Needs Daughter Taught Me About Beauty -- And The Beast

03/16/2017 12:05 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2017

My daughter, Erin, and I have watched Disney’s animated Beauty and The Beast no less than 500 times. She is completely captivated by this “tale as old as time’” ― and with Erin every time is more magical than the next. She sings, claps, and narrates along, expecting all within earshot to respond in kind.

“Look Mom, it’s the Beast! Grrrrr!!” she growls when he first appears.

Erin, 15, has an autism spectrum disorder. She perceives and responds to life’s details differently than most. In Erin’s world trees “dance,” the sun “smiles” and misplaced objects are not “lost,” but rather “hiding.” She revels in the mundane and sees beauty and wonder all around her.

For Erin, no magic spell is needed for inanimate objects to come alive. It makes perfect sense that a teapot sings and a clock and candelabra might serve as one’s most trusted confidants. I’ve always imagined that Erin feels an intrinsic connection to Belle, who questions these phenomenon no more than Erin would.

Erin also shares Belle’s passion for books. She is happiest in a library or a book store surrounded by stories. She is fascinated by the possibilities that exist between the aisles and the pages. She delights in illustrations. Like Belle, Erin is never without a book under her arm. In the film’s opening scene the villagers label Belle odd, because “she is always reading.” And like Erin, Belle is out of step with social norms ― “no ordinary girl.”

After several viewings on a recent snow day, however, I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s the Beast with whom Erin shares the most powerful connection. Maybe her fascination with this movie lies in a profound understanding that there are two sides to every story ― and every person ― and regardless of the exterior, there is always beauty to be found at the heart of everyone and everything.

Sometimes it feels as though someone cast a spell of sorts on kids like Erin. There is so much more there than meets the eye. I empathize with her and those with similar challenges in the same way you feel for this character.

Erin does not “fit in” with typical kids her age. She looks and acts differently. Her table manners leave a lot to be desired. (We are working on that.) She struggles with impulsive and challenging behaviors which most would consider undesirable in a companion.

Yet Erin is the most generous, perceptive and affectionate person I know. She loves and hugs unabashedly ― and, as an aside, would have no time for the controversy over the character, Le Fou in the movie’s updated version. With Erin, love is love.

Erin is a joyful soul and only wants those around her to be happy and to share in her delight. The only people who know this though are the people who have taken the time to know her. As her mom, I guess I’d be first on that list.

Maybe that’s where my own affection for this movie comes in. Every time I hear Mrs. Potts sing about this unlikely pairing: “Both a little scared, neither one prepared,” I think of my first moments with Erin as a newborn. Staring into each others eyes neither of us knew what to expect.

Special needs aside, no one is ever prepared to be parent ― or child. But it is our job to learn, to peel off the layers and to see what lies beneath. The gratitude a parent feels for someone who takes the time to do the same ― “to bend unexpectedly” ― and to appreciate the person you know your child to be ― knows no bounds.

Maybe that’s why Erin led us to this movie ― and to those people. For both I am so grateful.

 

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