By now you've probably heard of the Happy Birthday Colin effort, in which a socially isolated (though not autistic) boy's mom created a Facebook page to cheer him up for his eleventh birthday -- and the page went viral, with nearly 2 million Likes as of this writing. Colin's mom writes:
"I am Colin's mom, I created this page for my amazing, wonderful, challenging son who is about to turn 11 on March 9th. Because of Colin's disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don't like him. So when I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn't a point because he has no friends. He eats lunch alone in the office everyday because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone in the office. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party. Please join me in making my very original son feel special on his day."Colin's mom means so well, and I feel for her, too -- it hurts like hell to see your kid get left out or bullied. And the public outpouring of yay for Colin is a wonderful thing. Yet Colin's mother has now shared with millions of people that her son is "challenging" and that other kids don't like him. And then Colin's going to see that millions of people read those negative things about him.
My primary worry is that it's counter-intuitive to try to support a socially struggling kid by publicly emphasizing the negative aspects of those struggles in front of the kid. When I expressed my concern to autism parent and autistic advocate friends -- many of whom declined multiple opportunities to "like" Colin's page -- they had even more insights.
Parent Mary McLaughlin wrote:
"It's so easy to let the "yay" cloud the other considerations, but they are so important. I've been planning on working with my son to send a card to Colin. I think I'll spend a lot of time crafting a note to enclose as well."Parent Stacey Ashlund added:
"This story bugged me for another reason -- several thousand "likes" on a FB page is STILL not going to have kids come to his b-day party, and still won't get him invited to theirs -- it's a "feel good" story that is unlikely to "raise awareness" enough to generate behavior change IMO."And then autistic advocate Kassiane Sibley pointed out that Colin apparently asks his principal not to punish the kids who bully him, which brings up even more complications. Kassiane wrote:
"I don't doubt that she loves her son and really truly thinks she is doing what is best. And I wouldn't be surprised if a billion likes make Colin feel better about himself.So, what can be done to support Colin in real-world, real-change ways?
"But, acting local is both harder and going to make more of a difference to that particular child. Raising global awareness of inclusive practices? That's good, a thin layer of good over a wide area of space over time.
"Colin needs that whole layer to be folded up all in his space NOW. It sounds like he is exactly the kind of kid who would want to help the most people. But. He will be able to help so many MORE people if he gets what he needs for himself.
"(And there's probably no way to convince him of this. But. Gah. And that is why the powers that be need to step in and not make it his choice at all, but just say 'So we are not tolerating this crap being done anymore.')"
I'd suggest that Colin start working on believing in himself as a Not Wrong person, either by getting in touch with or at least reading the work of teen self-advocate Henry Frost, who writes,
"Know you are not a burden or trouble for being. You are a person who has every right to be. A family that is saying love but saying you are so hard so wrong for not being as they wanted. The family is wrong. Not You. A school segregating is wrong. Not You."I would also suggest Colin's mom look to autistic mentors like Karla Fisher and autism parents like Tasia to restructure Colin's school environment so it actually works for Colin. It may be that the accommodations Colin needs to thrive at school bear no resemblance to what his family and school think he needs.
Know you are not a burden or trouble for being. You are a person who has every right to be. A family that is saying love but saying you are so hard so wrong for not being as they wanted. The family is wrong. Not You. - See more at: https://ollibean.com/2013/11/14/wrong/#sthash.2d2aSfjM.ejHnDdXK.dpuf
I would ask that you not say negative things about kids' differences, challenges, or "struggles" in front of those kids. There are different ways to phrase things, such as "Colin has said that he would like to find friends" or even "Colin is the best kid ever, but for some reason the local kids don't understand how great he is."
I would ask that any time you encounter a person saying negative things about a kid in front of that kid -- even if they're doing so out of the very best intentions -- please speak out, however you can. And if you hear about kids being bullied? Please speak out, please do something, however you can.
And, along with all the other well-wishers, I really truly hope that Colin has a happy eleventh birthday on March 9th.