So a picture is making the social media rounds this week of a young autistic woman, Hallee Sorenson, eating cake alone on her 18th birthday. I’m not going to repost it because I suspect that it was posted and has made the rounds through the media without her permission. But the photo went viral because Hallee invited her class and other teens in the community to a bowling party to celebrate her birthday, and no one showed up. No one even sent an RSVP.
Content Note: Ableism, rudeness
Image Description: “Autism” in brightly coloured block letters against a black background.
There’s no disputing that it’s a sad story. The same thing happened to the daughter of a good friend of mine when she turned twelve. I wasn’t at the party, but when I heard about it I was furious. Livid. Growing up in my house, when we got invited to a kid’s birthday party and there weren’t prior plans for that day, we went – we’d been invited, and it was polite to go. Even if we didn’t like the kid that much, we were expected to suck it up, because it was only a couple of hours and at least there would be cake and ice cream. However, the parties where the whole class was invited were done by the time I was ten, making way for small-group sleepovers and movie parties and eventually the more adult parties of high school. But we’ll get to that later.
I was not so livid about the failed birthday party that my friend’s kid experienced that I posted on Facebook about it and solicited cards to make her feel better. That never even occurred to me. But it did to Hallee Sorenson’s cousin Rebecca, who posted this, along with the picture of Hallee at her birthday party, on her Facebook page:
“Hallee is an amazing person-a person I am proud to be related to. She is also a person who just happens to have Autism. She has never let that small detail define who she is as a person-which is why I refuse to use it as something to describe her.
“She had been so excited to have a party with her friends. She wanted to go bowling, have fun, and eat cake and Ice Cream. Invitations went out to her classmates at school and to other friends in the area. Hallee sat at her party anxiously waiting for her friends to arrive so they could have fun….but Hallee’s friends would never arrive. Not a single one. Below is the picture of her celebrating alone – eating her birthday cake. My cousin is a beautiful young woman who will always have the mind of a child…so as you can imagine, she was heartbroken and beyond sad. She was hurt…”
Rebecca also wrote that Hallee “loves getting mail- this would be the best birthday gift she could ask for. If you could find it in your heart to take a few mins out of your day and send her a card, I would be forever greatful,” She included Hallee Sorenson’s mailing address.
Hallee’s Mother: Hallee is a sweetheart. She is a people-pleaser, she’s affectionate, she’s empathetic, she’s sympathetic, she loves everybody, she, um, has never met a stranger, everybody is a friend. We’d planned, um, a couple of months in advance for her friends at school to come. She asked for a bowling birthday, that’s the party that she asked for, so we went all out and we didn’t get a single RSVP. But I wasn’t super alarmed about that because the year previously we didn’t get any either and yet everybody showed up. But the day came and we got everything ready and nobody came, nobody called, nobody showed up. My sister had been texting me from Texas saying, you know, “How’s the party? How come there are no pictures yet?” and I stood behind a pillar, I was crying so hard I just couldn’t even talk, and I took the picture and I said, “There’s nobody here.” And she and her husband were driving and they had to pull over. They were both crying. It was terrible, and what do you do? You just feel devastated. It’s- it’s – autism is a super lonely condition, not just for the person who has it, but for their family, because there are so many things that we can’t do. We can’t go to a movie. We can’t go to a family reunion. When these kids finally want to do something that’s typical, um, you go all out, and to have nobody show, well, it’s – it’s absolutely devastating.
She (Hallee’s cousin) said, you know “Hey!” you know, “I’m going to try and get some cards for Hallee” and then she shared it on her own personal page thinking, you know, friends would pitch in, and it just took right off the charts. It went from page to page and started jumping by the thousands. We’ve got people from Vietnam that have contacted us that want to send her cards, and churches and schools all over the UK, Scotland England. It’s amazing. I mean, how do you respond to something like this? They just want this kid to smile on her birthday. I mean, how do you say thank you enough for that? We are just so grateful. So grateful. And it’s so exciting for her. And I think that people are, you know, um, ready for something happy. People want to do something good for somebody, and this fits that bill, and they’re going to do whatever they can to make sure she’s happy, and that’s the best feeling
Hallee: Friends would write me so that they can good, celebrate me. And they can be good friends and love me so much. And wish me happy birthday. And best friends in the world. Okay?
I’ve discussed this story with a variety of people, and read many comments on the media coverage. The disabled people that I’ve seen comment on it have almost always reacted negatively, for a variety of reasons, and are talking about it mainly amongst themselves. I don’t see their comments on the media accounts, and there may be a good reason for that: when I see anyone’s public comments deviate from the narrative that soliciting cards from strangers over the internet to help lonely, autistic Hallee Sorenson feel loved and valued, they’re attacked.
“Congratulations. You’re a horrible person.” someone said in response to a comment suggesting that brought up some of the issues that disability advocates are raising.
Brace yourself, folks. I’m about to show what a horrible person I am.
Hallee Sorenson’s Party
Even though Hallee Sorenson may “always have the mind of a child” (I could do an entire blog post on how unfair it is to assume what developmentally disabled people do/don’t understand and the dangers of treating them as “eternal children” on that basis, but I’m going to just note that these are issues and move on), she was legally an adult at 18. She should have had the opportunity to plan her own birthday party to the greatest extent possible. Apparently she did say that she wanted a bowling party, but then, in her own mother’s words (see video), “we went all out.”
What does that mean?
Who made the guest list for this party? If Hallee Sorenson was the one who said, “I want to invite my classmates and these other teenagers for bowling and cake,” someone should have said to her, “You can do that. Your choice. But 18-year-olds usually don’t go to cake and ice cream parties, and not everyone likes bowling. The people that you want to come may not come.” When my friends and I were eighteen, we had part-time jobs, family obligations, and homework to do during the day on the weekend so that we could go out on Saturday night and do more homework on Sunday night. I would have sent an RSVP to Hallee’s party if my my 18-year-old self had been invited, and I would have asked her about it on Monday when I saw her at school. But would I have gone? Probably not.
Unless she was a friend with whom I habitually spent time and not just an acquaintance. But was the guest list actually made up of Hallee’s friends? Or was the goal to get as many people there as possible? Was that goal Hallee Sorenson’s or her mother’s?
Either way, Hallee Sorenson ended up with a party that eighteen-year-olds weren’t likely to attend – regardless of her disability, the party was somewhat set up to fail. But we’ve all experienced disappointment (even six-year-olds, if we must go with the idea that she’s processing events at that level of cognition), and it’s important that everyone learn to deal with disappointment and realize that life goes on. I had a shitty twentieth birthday. I didn’t get a story on CBS. I survived.
But I wasn’t disabled at the time.
Because Hallee Sorenson Is Disabled…
…it was okay to take an embarrassing story of how no one came to her birthday party and put it up Facebook, along with her photo and mailing address, without her permission.
It was okay for media outlets to pick up the story, use images of Hallee Sorenson (without her permission, it seems), and talk to everyone but her about how she felt about the birthday party.
Cards and presents from strangers are seen as an acceptable substitute for the validation that Hallee would get from real relationships with her peers.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that Hallee Sorenson’s cousin had totally good intentions when she asked the world to send birthday cards. And what parent wouldn’t want to do something, anything, to erase the memory of a birthday party where no one showed up? But how would any of us feel if we found out that we got a mountain of birthday cards because a family member put up a Facebook post asking strangers to send them and the news picked up on it?
“She’s going to see that a lot of people want to be her friend and want to wish her well,” her cousin told CBS in a phone interview.
I totally wish Hallee Sorenson well, but I’m not sending a card. I’m sure that she’s a lovely young woman, but I’m not her friend, and me sending her a card doesn’t make me her friend. Me sending her a card does not mean that I’ll do “friend” things like visit her or call her on the phone, that we’ll get together to do things that we find fun, that we’ll be there to talk to each other when things get rough. It doesn’t even mean that she’d get a card from me next year when this story is long gone from the public consciousness and people have forgotten it was in June that they saw the sad story about the “heartbroken” autistic girl in Bangor and sent a card so that *they* would feel a little less sad about what happened to her. The idea of her getting thousands of cards believing that these people will be her friends makes me feel sadder than the idea of of people not showing up for her birthday. It was shitty of them not to RSVP and say that they were going to do it, but at least it was honest – if they’d wanted to be there, they would have come.
This card business is just a deception. No one would even have thought to perpetuate it on a non-disabled person because of all the liberties that they took with her image and her information (and shame on the media for going along with it). And what has been in the almost-year since Hallee Sorenson’s birthday to get to real issue of why people didn’t come to the party? Was it simply that the party was too much for children? Did they pick a bad weekend? Or was it deeper? Was Hallee having trouble with her peers? Did she need some social skills coaching?
Or were her social skills fine, but she needed to get better friends? Like, ones that would actually care about her enough to come to her birthday party, or at least enough to tell her why they couldn’t?
A friend of mine who *is* going to send a card said, “I just feel sad for her.” I do too. Hallee Sorenson didn’t ask for any of this – not the birthday party where no one showed up, or anything after.
Hallee Sorenson’s family is celebrating her birthday with a private family party this year. I hope that she enjoys it, and wish her many happy birthdays to come.