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Feb 26 2014

Facebook “Likes” Are Great, But How Can We Help Children like Colin Make Friends?

By at 11:42 am

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I have been watching the Happy Birthday Colin movement on Facebook for the past couple of weeks. I have been both fascinated and touched by the outpouring of compassion and generosity that seemingly millions of strangers have expressed towards Colin, a boy with special needs who has trouble making friends. After Colin told his mom not to bother with a birthday party since he doesn’t have any friends, his mother, feeling awful, took to social media, built a Facebook page for his birthday, and shared it, hoping some messages would help to lift the boy’s spirits on his birthday.

The thing has gone completely viral; more than 2 million people have liked the page and offered messages. Based on the photos that Colin’s mother posts every few days of them picking up what looks like carloads of birthday cards and gifts that are arriving at Colin’s PO Box, it looks like Colin will have the surprise of a lifetime on his birthday (and he will probably be opening cards every day until his next birthday from the looks of it).

It’s really been great to see that people recognize the need to make every kid feel good on their birthday and to reach out to this boy.

It’s a great thing.

As the mother of a child with autism, a child who is maybe not quite as lonely as Colin (probably because she is not mainstreamed), but who has a lot of social struggles I have found myself dreading my daughter’s birthday for the same reason that Colin’s mother did, because my daughter doesn’t really have a lot of friends but wants them, and wants to be like other kids and be surrounded by her peers on her birthday.

Somehow pressing “like” doesn’t feel like enough. Not for Colin or for any child who struggles socially.

It’s easy to press a “like” button on Facebook or make a beautiful comment on a post. It’s a lovely thing and I truly hope for Colin that this movement will infect his school and that the parents around Colin’s school mates will realize the importance of connecting with those who are different and that this time next year, Colin will have some real and true friends to attend his birthday party.

Because that is truly what success looks like, not 2 million likes or a million or more cards and letters. Don’t get me wrong, the cards, likes and letters are great. But I can’t help but think what happens to Colin when he goes to school the day after his birthday? Does he go back to being isolated and alone? Does he still eat lunch in the principal’s office?

Listen, befriending a child with special needs is not always easy. It’s something that takes time and effort. It’s an investment of time and energy, it may be frustrating at times as you and your child have to understand a little something about the person with special needs, what their issues are, what situations are they more likely to be successful in. It may mean changing up what you ordinarily do to accommodate the person with special needs. It may mean being patient. It will mean exercising compassion. It takes a parent’s encouragement and guidance.

It can also teach your kid some very valuable skills and life lessons and be immensely rewarding.

What if every single person out there who “liked” that page or sent a card, actually started a dialogue with their kids about the importance of looking beyond differences?

What if every parent out there who doesn’t have a special needs kid would encourage their kids to be the one that actually befriended a child that they know with special needs?

What if those parents would call the parents of those special needs kids in their sons and daughter’s classes and ask them how they could encourage a friendship between their children?

What if those parents worked together to find new and creative ways to foster those friendships?

What would that be like?

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