Real World Support

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This article originally appeared on Slate on 2.17.14 as Happy 11th Birthday, Colin. It appears here by permission from the author, Sarah Dwyer Olsen.

At 8, my son was invited to his first birthday party, at a bowling alley in town. I remember picking him up afterward very nervous that he somehow now had 25 new BFFs.  When I asked him how it went, he simply said, “OK.” I found out later, of course, that my expectations were unrealistic. None of the children had wanted him on their team, so he’d bowled with the parents. That was the last of the birthday parties. He’s never really had one of his own—I watched him turn down my offers of a party year after year, until I eventually stopped asking.

So I understand deeply the heartache that Jennifer, the mother of a boy in Michigan named Colin, felt when her child told her has no friends to invite to a birthday party. According to the Facebook page Jennifer made for her son’s 11th birthday, which has garnered more than 1.9 million likes in about two weeks, Colin has a disorder similar to Asperger syndrome; “social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don’t like him.”

My son has Asperger’s, and I too have experienced that dejected look on my child’s face, telling me he is all alone. As a mother, you want to make the pain go away, even if in the short term that means not accepting the reality yourself. I can relate to her rationale for creating a Facebook page, and I appreciate the way that page has raised Asperger’s awareness. It makes me feel optimistic that so many people were touched by his story and that it has gone viral. I know people do care, even if they are not always able to show it. But I have very mixed feelings about those millions of strangers who have liked the page and posted messages to Colin, and I’m very concerned about how a boy like Colin will respond when he finds out about the page on March 9.

I am sure Jennifer was thinking her effort would garner at most 100 likes; I can empathize that those first 500 or so probably felt like an amazing gift to her. The responses came from people who have never seen a lanky 10-year-old standing in the grocery line screaming in agony because of the tag on his shirt, have never witnessed a full-body violent meltdown, or seen the look on the teacher’s face after a particularly hard day. To have 1.9 million people blindly accept you and your challenging, unique, beautiful son without judgment would feel equal to a lifetime of birthday presents.

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