Children with autism or autism spectrum disorders are at a higher risk of bullying than the neurotypical population. In fact, a study performed by the Interactive Autism Network found that 63% of their study population, children ages 6 to 15 with autism, reported being bullied at some point in their lives. But there are other ways besides bullying a child with autism can feel alienated, and Reilly Stephenson and his father Shane can tell you.
Reilly Stephenson is six. He is nonverbal. In the autism and ASD community, this is not uncommon. In fact, 30% of people diagnosed with ASD never learn to speak more than a few words. He has been bullied because of his condition, and his father has seen and heard it all.
What really hurt the most was when Shane found out that none of his friends were inviting Reilly to their children's birthday parties. This was a slight to both father and son, and belied any kind of friendship these people may have claimed toward Shane. But our father and hero didn't just let things lie.
Shane sent a text message to his adult friends that read:
My son Reilly has autism, not leprosy…He is 6 years old and my so-called friends who have kids also have kids’ parties. Not ONE invite, not one.
Birthday parties are a place where children interact, build skills, and cultivate necessary and formative relationships and experiences with other kids. They have a lot of social currency, as well. Being rejected at such an early age can have serious consequences on a child's development.
Reilly's mom Christine took to Twitter to back up her husband, and call out the parents who dissed their kid and them. Her hashtag calling for inclusion is part of an overall mission to de-stigmatize the disorder amongst neurotypical people. More people must speak out, and more need to listen.
Up until a few years ago, Christine was running a blog called Life of Reilly. It documented her son's condition, but also served as a diary, which the public could read and get a better idea of what it's like to both live with ASD and also as a parent of an ASD child. It also has some fascinating interpretations and repurposing of Spiderman comics.
Others took to Twitter and other social media to express their support for Reilly and his awesome, thoughtful parents. One person imagined how much a difference it would make if more people spoke out in such direct terms. But the burden of reciprocity rests on the parents like those throwing the parties.
Another study at Virginia Polytechnic came to a similar conclusion. Anxiety and feelings of loneliness increase in direct relation to the lack of social interaction in kids with ASD. That means that the symptoms of the condition can have a snowballing effect.
That's why these other parents did such a disservice to Reilly. It's helpful to and important for kids with ASD, even if these parents and their kids feel awkward, to be invited to these social gatherings. It's up to the child and parents to make a decision about whether they will stay.
So if you're a parent of a child with ASD, know that you and your child have rights. If you're a parent and you're having a party, be sure to make your invite list inclusive. And if you are someone with an ASD, know that there is hope. And, Reilly, if you're reading this: you rock.