When a Stranger Showed Kindness to My Son With Down Syndrome

My 12-year-old son has Down syndrome and is a “people person.” He has limited oral speech but loves to interact with people using physical contact and natural gestures. Sometimes he gets a little rough and doesn’t understand “personal space.” For his own safety and to teach him socially appropriate touch, we discourage him from initiating contact with strangers.

We take him to places in our community to help him learn to stay with us and stay safe. When we take him into public places, we have him hold our hands or stay close. One frequent outing is to the convenience store. We let him pick a drink, work on carrying it without spilling, and have him set it on the counter so we can pay for it. Soon we will start teaching him to pay for it himself.

On one particular day after he had set his drink down, I saw him look at a man who looked to be in his late teens or early 20’s walking into the store. My son took off toward him and ran right into him, giving the man a big hug before I could stop him. It was the kind of hug my son gives people he knows, so I can only guess he thought he saw a familiar face. It wasn’t hard to miss the man looked a little rough; I did not think he would appreciate a little boy stuck to him like that. However, much to my surprise, the man just stopped walking and wrapped his arms around my son. He didn’t say a word to my son or to me as I apologized and extracted my boy from him. In fact, as soon as my son let go, the man continued walking toward his destination within the store without looking back at us.

Most people react positively to my son — they give him patience when he is walking slow and blocking their way or they keep on smiling when he holds their handshake a little too long. Sometimes people are impatient with him and occasionally someone is rude toward him. But, regardless of how they respond to him, they notice he has a disability; they notice a reason why his behavior is unusual.

I’ve never witnessed a stranger react to him so kindly without looking for a reason for an unusual behavior. I will never know if the man realized my son had Down syndrome, or another disability that could explain why my son was throwing himself at him. He did not seem to need a reason why a random child might hug him. But, I will remember how much I appreciated this stranger’s gut instinct to return my child’s hug, no questions asked.

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