Sarah was excited when her husband told her that an invitation to her niece’s Sweet 16 birthday party had arrived in the mail. She carefully ran her hand over the paper and read each name on the envelope.
In an interview with Dearly, she said that she immediately noticed that the names of her husband, herself, and two of her children were written on the front, but the name of her youngest son was not.
She remembers calling to her husband and pointing out that a name was missing. “Look, [our son] is not invited,” she said, even second-guessing herself.
“This has got to be a mistake,” he replied.
But the next morning they both received a text message from her sister-in-law noting that she had intentionally left him off the invitation because, as a severely autistic child, his actions could disrupt the party.
The family wanted the party to be focused on Sarah’s niece without worrying about events that might trigger her son.
According to Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to supporting families and advancing autism research, autism is a mental disorder that impacts a person’s ability to communicate and develop social skills.
Interesting infographic about autism and the brain from Autism BrainNet.
Autism is known as a spectrum disorder as there is a range of conditions that can impact patients differently. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism, and more than 40 percent of autism patients are nonverbal.
While parties can be overwhelming for autistic children, the Aspergers Society writes that parents can take steps to help them feel more comfortable, such as foregoing the birthday song and presents.
Sarah’s son has been receiving help since he was diagnosed at 18 months old. He can now communicate using short, three-word sentences and has made significant progress.
Sarah told Dearly that both she and her husband were heartbroken when they read the text message. but didn’t want to start an argument with her sister-in-law. “This could have gone down in a different way. We’ve brought assistants with us to help our son at past family events,” she said.
The invitation created a challenge for her and her husband to decide how to manage their response together.
As an advocate for autism awareness and as a mother, Sarah took some time to consider how to handle the invitation with care.
She found comfort in the fact that her 10-year-old son couldn’t understand what had happened, but also saddened that he couldn’t understand, even if she told him.
Then, as the date of the party drew closer, Sarah’s anxiety skyrocketed. She felt like she needed to find a way to communicate how she felt in a safe and healthy space.
She asked her husband if she could post on Facebook. At first, he declined since he didn’t want his family to be upset, but later told her she could post in a private group called the Kindness Challenge, a Facebook page for people to share encouragement and acts of kindness.Screenshot/Facebook
Sarah wrote on the page and included a picture of her son:
Please consider doing an act of kindness today in honor of my beautiful son who has low-functioning autism. My heart is sad because he was not invited to attend his cousin’s Sweet 16, but my husband, two other children and I were invited. We even received a text over two months ago stating that he was not included because the family did not want to worry about any of his “behaviors.” What’s so sad is this family lives close to us but has not seen our son in a year and a half and chooses not to be involved in his life. […]
Today we are sad about the way our little guy was treated, but in our hearts we know that love and kindness will always win. We choose to turn this challenging situation into a positive one by continuing to do random acts of kindness today and every day. I am so glad that I found this group and am so inspired by all the stories I have read.
She tried to make the post as mild as possible, but she told Dearly that she had a difficult time toning things back. After she published the post, however, both Sarah and her husband found the comments to be comforting.
Many of the comments were supportive of Sarah, her family, and especially her son. One person wrote that the couple should to donate money in support of an autism organization in the name of the niece. Another recommended that they should skip the event in support of the son.
Sarah ultimately decided not to attend the birthday party: “If we had gone, what kind of message would this have sent to my niece? That it’s OK to exclude kids because they have special needs?”
She considered donating to an organization in honor of her niece, but she didn’t want the gift to be received in a negative way.
In the end, she felt comfortable with her post and how it took an upsetting situation and turned it into a positive outcome. Sarah noted that it also marked a milestone in her marriage:
“The fact that my husband and I could meet in the middle and deal in our own way was a huge milestone in our marriage. We didn’t let negativity impact us. His sister has never been part of our support network. At the end of the day, we know it’s just us and I’m proud of our marriage. The divorce rate is high with kids with special needs. My husband is an amazing person, I want to grow old with him. We’re going to be a success story.”
According to The Washington Post, the divorce rates are significantly higher for parents of children with special needs. It was previously estimated to be around 80 percent, but that number has since been refuted.
Sarah is glad that the incident is behind her, she feels that she can confidently move forward with some of her other activities, such as helping other families with special needs and elderly people without family members.
She worries about the future for her son as she doesn’t want him to be left without anyone to care for him in the eventuality that she passes away. But at the moment she’s focusing on being the best mom for him now.
Editor’s Note: Sarah’s name has been changed in order to protect her family.