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March 25, 2015
by Sharon Heller, Phd

Social Media Helps Autistic Boy Have Birthday to Remember - Behind the Diagnosis

March 25, 2015 10:16 by Sharon Heller, Phd  [About the Author]

Birthday parties are meant to be special days for a child.  But for a 6-year-old Florida boy, the day was devastating.  Though Glenn Buratti's mother Ashlee Buratti invited his entire class over for a party, none of the 16 kids showed up.

Glenn is autistic. Children on the autistic spectrum have great difficulty in socializing and making friends and often feel isolated and alone – and especially for birthday parties where no one shows. 

Glum and saddened by the absence of guests, Glenn kept asking his mother, “When will my friends get here?” she wrote in a post on Facebook.

And then magic happened. The post generated a gargantuan response from her community and, shortly after her posting, kids and their parents began bringing gifts. Even strangers responded.

Then the police got involved to give Glenn got truly a never-to-be-forgotten gift: the county sheriff's office near her house in St. Cloud, Florida sent over a flyover from the sheriff's helicopter. Glenn was smiling now, the whole time, and waving.  Nor did the giving stop. More gifts arrived from deputies and, the next week, sheriff's cars, police dogs and fire trucks paid him a visit.

Shut Out of a Social World

Many kids struggle to fit in but for children on the autistic spectrum making friends, if they can at all takes a huge effort. These children have quirks that make it challenging to be around them. They typically display severe hypersensitivities and may clap their hands over their ears to the roar of the washing machine, scream if you suddenly touch their shoulder, and run out of a room holding their nose from the smell of bleach. 

To stave off the anxiety, they perseverate and repeat behaviors over and over again. They might touch every wall, every door, clap their hands over and over, repeat strange noises or a catchy phrase they heard on the radio ad infinitum. Schedules and predictability are an imperative and the slightest change can set him off. Telling them they cannot have spaghetti in the restaurant as it’s not on the menu could set off a meltdown and, to your acute embarrassment they suddenly wail, hit, spit, bite, kick, and smash things on the table. Trips to the emergency room are not unusual – including for a pummeled parent. And while no one has to know about their meltdowns in the privacy of the home, unfortunately they happen easily in any overstimulating environment like a restaurant, supermarket, mall, sporting arena, or should they ever be invited, another child’s birthday party.

To make socializing even worse, they commonly have trouble making eye contact and may speak in a monotone voice, eliminating emotion from their communicating.  An impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues means that, should the listener yawn or look away they will continue ranting on.  A processing delay is common as well so their conversations don‘t always flow. As a result, what they do say often appears out of sync as they tend to have a one-dimensional view of their own personality or that of others. For instance, if you ask them what their brother is like, they might say “He’s tall” or “He’s 16.” 

They tend to be extremely literal and fail to interpret and respond to sarcasm or banter.  As a result, they may be puzzled as to why they are ignored or mistreated, unaware of what they have done incorrectly. Such unusual behavior and language make these children an easy target for bullies. Further, such rejection can lead to later withdrawal and antisocial behavior, especially in adolescence.

Even those with Asperger’s, who, suffering a mild form of autism often look like any other child and are at the top of their class, as many are of high intelligence – Bill Gates is a classic example -- have great difficulty socializing, though they often want to be social. 

Parents Suffer Isolation As Well

The children are not the only ones to be isolated. Parents are as well, as friends, not knowing what to say to the parent and often uncomfortable in the child’s presence drop off like flies. Many will pull their kids from your child as if he is dangerous or has a contagious disease. 

Nor do parents want to be with others with “normal” children as watching them grow and develop only reinforces their own feelings of loss for the “regular” child they had expected. Often, parents will befriend parents of children on the spectrum.  

All is not lost for these children.

With training, they are able to learn social skills such as: 

• Learning give and take in conversations;

• Recognizing facial expressions and body language;

• Knowing the way to enter into other children's activities;

• Providing compliments at the right times and knowing how to respond to compliments;

• Knowing the right time and way to offer criticism as well as being able to accept and handle criticism from others;

• Learning replace disagreement with compromise rather than aggression or emotional outbursts;

• Understanding the opinions of others.

About the Author

Sharon Heller Sharon Heller, Phd

Sharon is a developmental psychologist who specializes in books on holistic solutions for anxiety, panic and sensory processing disorder (SPD). She is the author of several popular psychology books including "Uptight & Off Center: How sensory processing disorder throws adults off balance & how to create stability (Symmetry, 2013) and Anxiety: Hidden Causes, Why your anxiety may not be 'all in your head' but from something physical (Symmetry, 2011.

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