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What My Brother With Down Syndrome Taught Me About Intelligence

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My younger brother Matthew has Down syndrome. Next to Jesus, he’s been my whole world up until meeting my husband and having our son. Now I share my world with a few more hearts, but Matt remains my best friend.

He’s out there living his very best life, touching lives left and right, and ending his day with a big bowl of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, clad in his boxer briefs, and watching a 10-minute video on how to clean an outdoor pool.

His whole life, learning has been hard. Entirely possible – just different. He has always excelled with technology – typing his thoughts was more effective than writing them or speaking them. Nothing says “leave me alone” quite like a text that reads, “Do Not Call Me Right Now.” He is fully capable of reading books up to about a third grade level, but he didn’t love it and used to always ask others to read to him. That all changed when his nephew came along, because he willingly reads to him, and it is the most heart-swelling, smile-inducing experience I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

When it comes down to it, Matt can learn. He does learn. It just takes longer, and he has to work harder for it, which if we’re being honest, is not a lot of fun. He is extremely gifted in learning things he takes an interest in, and those things often seem a bit “strange” to others. But no matter. It just proves my point – he can learn. That does not mean he will learn at the same pace, or even to the same level. It also, unfortunately, does not mean he will be allotted the same opportunities to learn as many others.

Here’s the scoop. We are all wired with innate abilities to retain and apply our learning and natural curiosities and passions that fuel our desire to learn. But our abilities and curiosities may not be the same.

I have a gifted memory. I do not, however, have any interest in car mechanics. Combining a strong ability with a topic of zero interest is not a successful combination. Similarly, I do not test well, but I do enjoy learning about Disney. Combining a lacking ability with a topic of great interest would not be a successful combination. In either of these scenarios, I am set up to perform poorly. But I swear to you, I can learn! In my case, if Disney and memory were a pair, I would probably look quite intelligent.

The world doesn’t work this way though, especially not for my brother and his counterparts. Have him read aloud a book about skunks, and you may not get a whole lot from him. But have him tell you about skunks straight out of his memory, and hold onto your hats. He can hack the school’s iPad system, but he can’t tell you how he did it. He can write out every direction for a drive to our grandparents’ home in Florida, but he can’t drive.

Society is quick to deem him disabled and use demeaning language like the r-word to describe him, but in reality, we haven’t necessarily given him opportunities to showcase the learning he can do. In my case, I can escape the need to memorize how to change the oil in my car without anyone assuming I can’t do it, or calling me names when they find out I can’t. But Matthew can’t get through a day at his job without someone assuming he needs help.

He is bright. Brighter than most anyone would assume. Brighter than even I give him credit for sometimes.

Maybe we need to redefine what is smart.

My brother doesn’t fit in the narrow schema of intelligence that is accepted in our society. But intelligence is far more than being able to solve 525 x 62 or properly introduce yourself to another. Why can’t we assume the intelligence of someone who can recite all of a character’s lines in a movie or remember my birthday a year after I told him/her a single time? Why is it we allow a person’s diagnosis or appearance to make us not just wonder if, but entirely doubt that they are capable?

Maybe we need to cut away the sides of the box we have created for people so everyone can fit.

My intelligence may not look like yours, or my brother’s, or my students’, but that doesn’t mean any one of us is less bright than the next. We just have to figure out where that intelligence will shine and give it the opportunity to do so.

Right now, I am watching a TV series that aired a few years ago on CBS – “Scorpion.” In this series, a team of geniuses with extremely high IQs solve impossible problems, but they can’t navigate a normal conversation to save their lives. Does this mean we can assume they lack intelligence because they can’t socialize appropriately? In this same show, they have a friend who contributes near nothing to the academic prowess of the team, but she interprets the world for them and helps them survive daily interactions. Does this mean we can assume she lacks intelligence because her IQ isn’t over 100?

Not everyone is gifted in every way. But everyone is gifted.

My brother can learn. It may not be what you know. It may be knowledge you would deem unimportant. It may not follow a traditional learning trajectory. But the fact remains – he can learn. Everyone can learn. And even though it is harder for him and harder for others still, he is not a “retard.” Nobody is.

When you use the r-word, you are insinuating that an individual, whether someone with a disability or not, is unintelligent, foolish and purposeless. This in turn tells a person with a disability that they too are unintelligent, foolish and purposeless. Because the word was historically used to describe individuals with disabilities and twisted from its original meaning to fit a cruel new context, it is forevermore associated with people like my brother. No matter how a person looks or learns or behaves, the r-word is never a fitting term. It’s time we waved it goodbye.

This story originally appeared on In This Open Book.

Originally published: April 23, 2019
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