BANGOR, Maine — Hallee Sorenson is, in many ways, like any other teenager. She likes watching videos on YouTube. She has a sarcastic sense of humor. She fights with her little sister, Maddie. She has a pink candy-print backpack to take with her to school.
The only thing that’s different is that Hallee, 18, is autistic.
“She is so sweet and so open. She’s never met a stranger. Everyone is a friend,” her mother, Allyson Seel-Sorenson, said. “But things are a little different for her. She can’t do some of the things that other people do.”
Hallee’s friendly, empathetic nature belies many of the stereotypes people may have about autistic people. But Seel-Sorenson, her husband Mark Higgins and her 13-year-old daughter Maddie — a pugnacious defender of her beloved sister to anyone who might give her a hard time — know that things as simple as a birthday party can sometimes be a challenge to arrange and pull off. Although she loves spending time with people, it can be hard for Hallee to make friends. And many of her cousins and other extended family live out of state, so there’s not always a large social network around her.
Hallee and her family had, for most of her life, opted to have very small, intimate birthday parties with just family, because Hallee doesn’t like large crowds and loud noises. When Hallee requested a real birthday party for her 17th birthday, they were thrilled. Despite no RSVPs, many of her Bangor High School classmates showed up.
Last year, for her 18th birthday, Hallee said she wanted a birthday party at Bangor-Brewer Bowling Lanes in Brewer, a place where she felt very comfortable, because she had been going there for years with the Special Olympics. Her mom was ecstatic.
“That was a huge thing for her, to do something age-appropriate like that,” she said. “We went all out. We sent out 20 invitations, and even though we didn’t get any RSVPs, we didn’t get any the year before either, so we weren’t too alarmed.”
On Hallee’s birthday, July 2, 2015, the family arrived at the bowling alley with cake and ice cream in tow. They waited. And waited. No one showed up. Relatives from out of state texted Seel-Sorenson, asking how the party was going. She took a photo to text back.
“I texted that picture — that one picture of Hal I took. I was standing behind a pillar. I was crying,” Seel-Sorenson said. “No one showed up. No one called. Hallee just doesn’t understand. You can’t explain it to her. She operates at a 6-year-old’s level. She just doesn’t get it.”
That one picture Seel-Sorenson took of her daughter found its way to her niece, Rebecca Prefontaine, who also lives in Massachusetts. Prefontaine kept the photo all year. This week, she decided to make sure Hallee did not have an unhappy birthday this year. She posted the picture and a story Tuesday evening, hoping some friends of hers might send her little cousin some birthday cards.
“She’s a 911 dispatcher in a little town outside of Boston, and she shared that picture. I think she was hoping that some of her fireman and police officer friends might send a card,” Seel-Sorenson said. “I don’t think she had any idea that this would happen.”
Prefontaine’s public Facebook post took off like a rocket. On Wednesday morning it had been shared a few hundred times. By the end of that day, it had been shared thousands of times. By Thursday afternoon, it had been shared more than 66,000 times. And as of 2 p.m. Friday, it had soared past 150,000 shares — and that doesn’t include the countless stories written by media in Maine, all over the country and, now, all over the world.
Seel-Sorenson and Prefontaine have received messages from England, the Netherlands and Vietnam and from nearly every state in the U.S. — and the birthday cards and gifts have already started arriving. The family has asked for just cards, no gifts, but people have sent gifts anyway.
“[Rebecca] has called me a dozen times and said, ‘I’m so sorry. Do you still love me?’ Which I think is just hysterical,” Seel-Sorenson said.
Prefontaine and her wife, Jess, will be joining the family this weekend to help with the onslaught of cards and gifts and to do “damage control,” as Seel-Sorenson put it.
“[Rebecca’s] heart was absolutely in the right place,” she said. “And I think people are ready for something like this. People are ready for something good. And it’s my baby. It’s my girl.”
Seel-Sorenson stressed that she doesn’t hold any grudge or ill will toward the people who didn’t show up for her daughter’s birthday last year. But she does know that for people with autism it can be an uphill battle to build relationships with peers.
“For whatever reason, kids like Hallee and adults like Hallee get short shrift,” she said “This is the kind of thing where everyone thinks someone else will do something. Someone else will be there. I don’t have to be there. But then this happens.”
Seel-Sorenson and her husband don’t plan to have a big party for Hallee this year, though she said many people and businesses have reached offering to throw her parties for free.
“She just can’t handle a big party. … But people have offered her parties. Geaghan’s Pub [in Bangor] said they’d host a party for her. The bowling alley from last year said they’d have a party. Everyone has been so sweet and generous. But we’re going to keep it low key,” she said.
Low key — except for the fact that, for this year’s birthday, Hallee will have cards and gifts coming in from all over the world.