Smarty Pants

Today, when I pick Evelyn up from her summer program, I have the pleasure of reading the following note from her teacher:

“Evelyn had a good day…She counted her friends and teachers.  She said there were 10 people – which was correct.  We read the book ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’ and she told us the sounds of all the animals.”

When we recieved Evelyn’s diagnosis, one of my greatest concerns was that she wouldn’t be like our family.  She wouldn’t look like us.  She wouldn’t fit in with us.  She wouldn’t be like us.  I was especially concerned that she wouldn’t be smart.  I come from an intelligent family.  My identity was firmly rooted in my intellect.  I found a learned mind to be the most admirable quality one could possess.   I was constantly praising Brady for his intelligence.  I often worried how I would relate to this child who can’t learn?  How would I praise her?  I wouldn’t be able to say, “You are so smart! I’m proud of you!”

Therefore, I had to take a hard look at myself.  I’d always looked down on other’s who placed the highest value in beauty or athleticism, but was my point of view any less small minded?  I spent a lot of time before Evelyn was born rewriting my definition of human value.  I was surprised to find so many other admirable attributes.  I began noticing and appreciating patience, humor, kindness, and thoughtfulness in others as much, and sometimes even more, than intellegence.  I learned a valuable lesson:  There is no singular trait or attribute that is more valuable than the others.  We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, and the value is in what we do with them.  I am thankful for this change in perspective.  It adds dimension to my relationships and my life.  I’m glad I was pushed to take this journey by her diagnosis.  I hope anyone who is living in a small world, like I was, is given the opportunity to expand their horizons.

Yes, my concern for Evelyn’s lack of intelligence changed me and I am grateful I took that journey, but I was wrong – Evelyn is smart.  People with Down syndrome are smart.  People with Down syndrome can learn.  Sometimes in a different way, or at a different pace, but that can be said of many people.  While I want to encourage others to find value in more than intelligence,  I also want to assure you there is no need to count out intellect when it comes to someone with Down syndrome.  Evelyn can sign at least fifty signs.  She can read the alphabet, count to ten, and identify her colors and shapes.  She sight reads dozens of words.  That’s pretty good for even a typical three year old.  Granted, it didn’t come as easily as with her brother, and her sister is rapidly gaining on her.  That is why I am especially proud of how determined she is.  She never quits.  She just keeps trying.  When I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, I think of Evelyn, and I carry on.  She is inspiring.

So today, I read the note from her teacher and I say without hesitation, “You are so smart!  I’m so proud of you!” and I mean it.

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Down Syndrome and Birthdays

Looking at the searches that have lead people to this blog is an adventure.  Some are hits – each time I see a search about prenatal diagnosis I give myself a mental high five.  Some are misses – “natural garden images” for my Welcome to Holland analysis.  Some surprise me – I’ve had multiple views of my post from Adelle’s birthday for searches relating to celebrating birthdays of people with Down syndrome.  That post doesn’t address the topic at all and, honestly, I never would have thought about addressing this topic because sometimes I forget about Before Meredith.

Before Meredith was nice.   She tried to do the right thing.  She didn’t want to offend anyone or hurt any feelings – to the extent that she avoided situations or people that might cause either of those things to happen.

I can imagine her flipping through the mail while walking up the driveway from the mailbox, smiling a little at a small colorful envelope addressed to Brady, obviously carrying an invitation from a friend.  I can imagine her reading the glossy photo invite over his shoulder, happy that he has been included in this celebration by a little classmate.  The who, when, and where listed next to a smiling picture of a little boy or girl with Down syndrome in the shape of a balloon or a birthday cake, colorful cartoon confetti splashed all over the background.  That picture would morph Before Meredith’s smile into an anxious frown.  Later, she would carefully Google “Down syndrome birthday”, for the perfect “Down syndrome gift” so as not to offend the poor “Down syndrome child” or “Down syndrome parents.” Then, on the day of the party, she would drop her son off with his brightly decorated gift, to play games and eat cake, and she would cross her fingers that the gift was correct and be proud that her son had a friend with a disability – big parenting pat on the back. Yeah!

It would be easy for the person I am now to get angry at Before Meredith.  There is so much injustice in the world when it comes to people with disabilities.  It can be overwhelmingly heart breaking.  Before Meredith is a convenient (although not fair) scapegoat.  Before Meredith doesn’t know many people with disabilities.  But I know what is in her heart, because I was her.  Her heart is mine, with less experience.  Her mind is open.  She is looking for the right answer.  So here it is:

A child with Down syndrome is a child first.  They would probably appreciate whatever fad is popular with children in their class.  Feel free to ask what they are interested in when you call in your RSVP, or let your child choose the gift.  A birthday with Down syndrome is the same as a birthday without Down syndrome.  Just like any other child, a child with Down syndrome will care more about having friends at their party than the gift brought with the friend.

The same goes for any other situation for people with Down syndrome.  They are people first.  Down syndrome is something they have, not who they are.  Down syndrome does not make someone all that different from anyone else.  To Before Meredith I say: Don’t be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.  Don’t worry about what you don’t understand.  Put yourself out there.  Ask Now Meredith.  She would be happy to answer your questions and you will be better because of what you learn.

photo credit: chambanamoms.com