Students were decked out in their best attire recently for the big dance at Plano East Senior High School. But this was no ordinary prom. The district-wide “sensational sensory ball” was a special evening for students with special needs.
The event was open to all high school students who attend classes at Plano ISD schools. Regardless of whether they were in special education classes or not, all students who had a special need were welcome to come.
Plano East special education teacher Anthony Ruttenburg was the primary organizer behind the dance. Before the pandemic, he hosted an annual autism awareness event at the school. It was something akin to a large pep rally, often featuring a special basketball game with officers from the Plano or Murphy Police Departments.
This year he found himself discussing the upcoming event with colleagues and student leaders. At some point during the conversation, the idea of a special prom was broached. It didn’t take long for the autism awareness event to be scrapped in favor of the new idea.
“We thought, let’s give them something that can be more memorable for them and their families,” Ruttenburg says.
Due to sensory issues, many students are unable to attend the traditional prom. Loud music, laser light shows, and other typical party trappings could cause undue stress or even adverse effects like seizures.
At the sensory ball, kids had an environment more suited to their needs. However, that didn’t make it any less of a spectacle.
“We set it up just like a prom,” Ruttenburg says. “We had all the bells and whistles of a prom, the red carpet and everything.”
So many people responded to the event, Ruttenburg decided to make it free so that they all could enjoy the special evening. The event was near and dear to his heart, too, since Ruttenburg’s 15-year-old son is on the autism spectrum.
Ruttenburg is quick to point out that many people helped pull off this special prom. A small contingent of colleagues helped get the event off the ground. Student leaders volunteered their time and help spread the word.
The Plano East Panther Pride Booster Club and local nonprofit Life Community Enrichment also helped sponsor the event. While he may prefer to deflect all the credit, Life Community enrichment executive director Dawna Hubert says there was no doubt who led the program.
Hubert first became aware of Ruttenburg when she heard about him sponsoring Plano East’s special needs basketball team. This year, he received the Diversity Leadership Award for Plano ISD staff as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Celebration
“Anthony is a special man with a passion for special needs kids that is just unmatched,” she says. “As a member of the Plano ISD Diversity Advisory Committee, I feel it’s my responsibility to brag on him a bit for that recognition.”
“There’s been such a tremendous outpouring from the community and businesses,” Ruttenburg says. “Lots of people were very happy about this. It was awesome.”