When a Feel Good Story About a Child with Special Needs Feels Bad

A boy with developmental disabilities invited his classmates to his ninth birthday party and no one came. His mother reported that he waited to cut his “K-9” cake, hoping friends would show up, but they didn’t. The Chicago Tribune ran a feel good story about how a Facebook post about the non-party resulted in cards, presents, a visit from a K-9 handler, and special recognition of the boy’s birthday by the city council. But the story “buried the lede.” The boy’s classmates and their families had shunned a child with special needs.

Photo by Luis Cruz

Photo by Luis Cruz

All the gifts, cards, and birthday wishes from caring adult strangers that followed the failed birthday party are not enough to make up for the pain of waiting for a party that never happened. Kids with special needs miss out on so many normative experiences. They don’t get invited on playdates. Their families can’t participate in normal outings and experiences for fear their child’s behavior will be disruptive. And if they do try to host a birthday party, they have to hold their breath and hope the invitees will show up.

When I read the story and praise for the kind adults who tried to make this child’s birthday special, I thought the Tribune had missed the teachable moment. This should have been a story about exclusion, rejection, and lack of empathy. Just who were these so-called friends who skipped the party and, more importantly, where were their parents?

Shouldn’t nine-year-olds be taught that it’s unacceptable to hurt another child by not attending his birthday party? Given that everyone knew the child had special needs, had undergone brain surgery, and might not live beyond the next few years, I would expect the parents of his classmates to make sure that their kids attended his party. Not because it would have been fun for them, but rather, because it was the right thing to do as compassionate, supportive, and caring classmates.

I’m guessing the parents of his classmates let their kids decide if they wanted to attend the party. I’m also guessing no effort was made to teach their children the importance of acceptance, inclusion, and the appreciation of differences. It appears that the child with special needs was placated by the kindness of those who made an effort to celebrate his birthday, and I applaud the folks who sent him cards and gifts. But I’m not letting his classmates and their parents off the hook.

So here is my version of the story:

Boy’s birthday disappointment brings shame to invitees and their parents

A child with special needs had a birthday party but no one came. Like most 9-year-olds, Gerald was excited about his birthday. His mother had invited Gerald’s classmates to their home for a March 26 party to help him celebrate. But no one showed up.

Gerald, who turned 9 on March 20, has developmental issues, having undergone several brain surgeries.

“The doctors told us we would be lucky if he made it to kindergarten. Now they say we’ll be lucky if he sees middle school,” his mother said. “He’s been through a lot.”

It was difficult for his mother to see how upset her child with special needs felt as he waited for his friends to show up so he could cut his birthday cake that tasted like Reese’s candy. So Gerald’s mother and grandmother shared his story on Facebook, and the response of strangers was phenomenal. He received gifts and cards from all over the world.

But that only partly made up for the pain Gerald and his family experienced waiting for his classmates to come to his party.  Despite all of the hoopla after the fact, there is clearly a need for Gerald’s classmates and their parents to learn the importance of valuing, accepting, and appreciating those who are different.

Here are some resources for Gerald’s classmates and their parents and teachers:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a curriculum for schools as well as materials for parents to teach children how to relate to and include peers who have special needs.

Parents may find this resource useful for teaching their children about peers with special needs.

This blog talks about opening a typically-developing child’s mind to the glorious variety of people that exist in this world.

The Tribune article about Gerald was designed to make the reader feel good about all of the folks helping a child with special needs celebrate his birthday. I just wish it had also considered the fact that his classmates who chose not to attend his birthday party prevented it from being a feel good story for me. In fact, it made me feel rather bad.

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