Most of us know October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and most of us recognize October as the kick off to the impending holiday season. But did you know October is also Down Syndrome Awareness Month?
Being a mother to a child with special needs is not something I ever planned on. Not sure anyone really does. October marks two years since we first found out our lives would now include Down syndrome.
I was 27 at the time and pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know much about children in general, let alone children with special needs. After receiving that life-changing phone call, my mind was immediately filled with every question you could imagine. “Where would she go to school? Would she live with us forever? Would she be able to walk and talk the way a typical child does? Will she have friends? Will she feel accepted?” Those last two questions are the most daunting to me.
I learned pretty early on that if I couldn’t speak openly and honestly about our journey and struggles, then who would? I needed to be the one to make people understand Down syndrome and what a gift it can be if you open up your heart to it.
What is Down Syndrome?
Before you can explain to a young mind what Down syndrome is, it’s important to understand for yourself. From a biology side of things, DS is defined as a person having a third copy of chromosome 21. This additional chromosome alters the course of development and causes distinct physical characteristics. A person with DS is classified as someone with an “intellectual disability” meaning they are often slower to learn everyday tasks a typical child may pick up on very quickly. Talking, reading, writing, just to name a few. Another distinct characteristic of DS is low muscle tone. This makes hand-eye coordination, learning to sit up, crawl, walk, run, all more of a challenge. It’s also important to note that the range of those with disabilities varies just as much as those with abilities.
So now that we have a basic idea of what DS is, here are a few ways to help you introduce special needs to your children.
Our children are more perceptive than we know. They understand when we are avoiding a topic and they understand when something isn’t ok to talk about. As a mother of a child with special needs, I encourage an open and honest dialogue. I often find that when I’m meeting someone new I let it be known this is my daughter Ella, she has DS. It doesn’t define who she is a person but it IS, in fact, a big part of who she is.
If your child asks you a question about someone they feel may be different take the time to explain it to them, don’t make them feel bad for asking. If your child is lucky enough to have a family member with a disability, share it with them. Let them know that this person they love so much is a little extra special. Letting them identify an existing relationship with a disability will help them to accept others who have a disability as well.
Make it Relatable
Just like when one child has braces or one child wears glasses, break it down in a way they can understand and that relates back to them. You know your friend with the peanut allergy? Or your cousin who carries an inhaler? Remember the time you tried out for soccer but didn’t make the team? Sometimes certain things affect each of us differently, and sometimes we are good at things and sometimes we aren’t. These examples can be used to tactfully explain an individual with special needs. Ask them if they can recall a time they felt “different” from someone else and use that to guide the conversation in the right direction. Ask them how that made them feel and how they would have preferred to be treated during that time.
Skip the Sympathy
I can tell you that from day one, I hated hearing “I’m sorry” after I told someone of our child’s Down syndrome diagnosis. Sure our lives took a different path but there was nothing to be sorry for. Also, I can tell you as the mother of a strong-willed, determined, little girl… she doesn’t want anyone’s sympathy. She is determined to do things on her own, she rarely looks for help or guidance when trying to achieve something on her own and she is the first to let you know she’s perfectly able.
So instead of teaching our kids to have sympathy for someone who is less capable than they are, teach them to be understanding. Let your kids know it’s ok (and thoughtful!) to offer help but it may not always be well received. Children who are deemed special needs want to be accepted and acknowledged by their peers. This means they often times will put in the extra work to make sure they can achieve something on their own, just like everyone else.
We’re All Human
Lastly and most importantly … we are more alike than different. We all have feelings, we all learn and develop at a different pace, we all want to feel love and acceptance. THIS is the most important thing to explain to your children. Just as our parents taught us “treat others how you want to be treated” the same goes for our children. It’s important to teach our kids love and acceptance. Now more than ever.
In a world where special needs are becoming more acknowledged and accepted I hope these tips give you the guidance you need to help spark a conversation.