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.
I understand the sadness and love that led Colin’s mother to reach out through Facebook. The decisions we make when we have a child on the spectrum are difficult. We are just typical parents, with the same lack of confidence as everyone else, doing the best we can in the face of extraordinary challenges. But it’s worth pointing out that Facebook can be a dangerous place for a child or adult on the spectrum. It is a faceless, emotionless frontier where the typical social norms do not apply. As an Aspie, you are told you have to learn these social norms, yet on Facebook you cannot look anyone in the eye, you cannot try to learn to read the expression of people’s faces. In some instances, you are left to decipher the confusing emotional cues of emoticons, grammar, and punctuation. As users, these kids often get into trouble, saying too much, sharing too honestly, and leaving themselves vulnerable to the trolls—who are often their own peers.
In Colin’s case, as an observer of an unprecedented viral phenomenon, I worry Colin will not understand this overwhelming outpouring of love from strangers. I worry he will be left to believe that these people really are his friends, and leave him wondering if they will still be his friends next year. I see him reading these sentiments, opening these cards, and asking if any of them go to his school? Do these people live in his town? Will they come to a party? Can we have one now?
Colin’s mother wants what we all want for our children, on or off the spectrum: for them to be loved, accepted, and understood. Yet, as parents of children on the spectrum, our wishes for our kids are different. We would love to be kept up all night by the giggles and noise of a couple of kids sleeping over and staying up too late. We would cherish the phone ringing off the hook for our kid, or be delighted if he begged for a cell phone and unlimited texting. We would proudly recount in epic detail the time our son and his three buddies performed during the talent show, and we would cry in delight if we woke to a house that was TP’d the first day of school. In short, we would do anything to give our child rewarding friendships and birthdays to remember.
My son is now a tall, handsome, charming 18-year-old. He is one of the strongest, most likable people I have ever met. He eventually learned that his peer group was not the only place he could find friendship, and his most rewarding relationships are with people who are often decades older than he. He also learned the hard way that Facebook has serious limitations. It is mostly a good place to share funny pictures. It is mostly not a good place to find real friends.
It is so easy to like a page, and write a two-sentence sentiment to someone you have never met. It is much harder to ask that awkward child who lives down the block to come over and play, to your children’s total dismay. I wish each person who liked Colin’s page also reaches out to the person in the office who seems a little strange, or encourages their 10-year-old to seek out the kids at school who seem lonely, rather than ignore them.
My birthday wish for Colin is simply that five, or two, or even one of the 1,953,584 people that have Liked his mother’s page will make an effort to know him outside of Facebook. Maybe one of the Likers is a kid in his school, a neighbor down the street, or a sympathetic teacher. And I hope that this person makes a promise to love, accept, and understand Colin, and to be his friend for many, many birthdays to come.