The internet has rallied around to wish a 22-year-old woman happy birthday after her mom reached out on Twitter to ask for birthday wishes.
On Sunday, Twitter user @boonbags tweeted the now-viral message that said: “Hi everyone, I don’t ask for much but could you please wish my daughter Emily a happy 22nd birthday please she would be so happy she has Asperger’s and hasn’t any real-life friends it saddens me to say. Thanks very much much, Emily’s mum xx”
The request has captured hearts around the world, with the tweet gaining over 63,000 likes and thousands of retweets and replies. Soon after the tweet, the words “Happy birthday Emily” were trending in the U.K., with over 22,000 tweets using the phrase.
Thousands of Twitter users flooded timelines with birthday wishes for Emily, with many also sharing pictures of pets and animals.
“Happy birthday Emily. I hope turning 22 has been wonderful,” said one user. While another wrote: “Happy birthday Emily. My 19-year-old son is an Aspy kid and genuinely one of the coolest people I know. Hang in there. There is a world full of people who need to see who you are and what you can do!”
Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s, is a previously used diagnosis that became part of an umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2013. Asperger syndrome generally involves difficulty with social interactions, restricted interests, desire for routine and distinctive strengths including remarkable focus, aptitude for recognizing patterns and attention to detail.
In a 1943 paper, scientist Leo Kanner, who was one of the first people to clearly define autism, described the condition as being governed by “the powerful desire for aloneness and sameness,” and for years after many clinicians and scientists assumed that those on the autistic spectrum do not have friends and are not interested in friendships.
But multiple more recent studies have debunked this idea and forced a rethink—proving that autistic people can and do form friendships with both neurotypical and autistic peers.
Felicity Sedgewick Ph.D. is a lecturer in the Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol in the U.K. She has a particular interest in the life experiences of autistic people, including their friendships, relationships and mental health. She told Newsweek: “We know that autistic individuals both can and do form friendships and relationships. These are just as likely to be emotionally close and supportive as those of neurotypical people, to be long-lasting, and are a valued aspect of autistic people’s lives.
“In terms of autistic people’s friendships, we know that both autistic boys and girls tend to have smaller friendship groups than their non-autistic peers, but that their best friendships are very similar to those of non-autistic children.”
One Twitter user reached out to Emily and said: “Hi Emily! I’m Ed, I’m 21 and I’ve got Asperger’s too. I know that life can be difficult sometimes, but you’re doing so well and as a fellow autistic, I’m so proud of you. I hope that you’re having the best birthday ever. Sending big hugs and love to you on your very special day.”
Sedgewick explained: “Autistic children and young people do similar things with their friends as non-autistic children and young people do—play videogames, chat, share hobbies—and these activities help to build and maintain their friendships in the same way. They may not always do this in the ways that other people expect, but these activities are still meaningful and important, and shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Sadly, studies suggest that children on the autistic spectrum are up to three times more likely than their neurotypical peers to be targets of bullying, physical or sexual abuse. Sedgewick explains that this can also have a significant impact on relationships: “This can mean that a lot of autistic people have had negative experiences with their peers, being picked on for their authentic autistic responses or simply for being ‘different’ in ways which the people around them do not understand.”
In a later update, Emily’s mom responded to the huge response her tweet had received: “I can’t thank you all enough for wishing my Emily a happy birthday, you have all put a massive smile on her face thank you all so much xxxx.”
One of the many birthday wishes for Emily was from another autistic woman who wrote: “I’m autistic and so nice to everyone but people just don’t treat me as a friend and that causes me to be heartbroken. If I knew her, I’d give her a big happy birthday hug.”
Despite potential difficulties in building all-important relationships, the importance of the online world to people like Emily cannot be underestimated. Sedgewick said: “The online world allows autistic people to find others who understand them or who share their interests worldwide, and the written medium of communication is generally easier for autistic people because it provides more processing time than spoken conversation.
“Online friendships can be, and often are, just as emotionally close and important to people as their offline friendships.”
Newsweek has reached out to boonbags for comment.