Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Are We Afraid of Down Syndrome?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on Simeon's Trail on February 19, 2010. It is reproduced here with the author's permission. Click here to see this post in its original context (which may include accompanying photos), to view existing comments and to leave a comment of your own.

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Of all the things that can go wrong with a child - cerebral palsy, cancer, emotional issues, teenage rebellion (drug use), etc. - why is it that Down syndrome seems to strike the most fear in our hearts?

I'm not being judgmental...I was right there, too. When Eon was born (odds were 1:20, declined amnio) and we were told within minutes of his birth that he had Ds, I was terrified! It felt like the air had been sucked from the room. The fear abated when I finally held him and looked into his sweet face, but I won't deny that it was my first response.

I think back to that, now that I know my fears were completely unfounded, and wonder if I would've been as afraid if it had been something else. I like to think that I would've been, but I don't know.

I don't think we're really afraid of actual Down syndrome, but rather the image of Ds that we have in our heads...the adult with Ds in our childhood neighborhood with the institutional hair cut and the garbled speech...or the kid with Down syndrome at our school coming out of his special ed class at lunch who always tried to hug us...or our great Aunt Sue's memory of her little "mongoloid" brother who was a burden on the family until he died at 25.

The reality is that Down syndrome doesn't look like that anymore. Early intervention and medical advances have changed the face of Down syndrome.

First, people with Down syndrome don't suffer. This is a group that embraces life and expects us to do the same. In the words of American Idol contestant Maddy Curtis (who has 4 brothers with Ds), "They see the world in color and we just see it in black and white."

Second, they are not a burden. Babies who are born with Ds today are expected to live independently as adults with only minor support. We are seeing young adults work meaningful jobs, attend college, and even marry.

Third, they are more alike than different. Kids with Ds will learn to do all the things typical kids do...walk, talk, read, attend school, fight with siblings, just may take them longer. They can be fully involved in sports, music, dance, karate, etc.

There are some health issues associated with T21. Most are minor and easily corrected and not every kid will have them. It's absolutely possible to have a perfectly healthy baby who also has Down syndrome. Heart issues are scary, but often don't need surgery and if they do, the surgery is considered routine and has a high success rate.

If we have other kids, we're often worried over how Ds will affect them. I know I did. Good news! Siblings of those with Ds have been shown to have higher levels of empathy, compassion, and tolerance than siblings of typical kids. Aren't those qualities we want our kids to have? Studies have also shown that parents of kids with Ds are actually more likely to stay married than those without.

It's not a cake walk. Parenting seldom is. All kids have challenges. With six kids, I know this better than anyone. With Ds, at least we get advance notice of what some of them may be.