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My Son With Down Syndrome Does Not Fit Your Stereotype

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I have a son with Down syndrome, and I have a confession to make: the kindness of strangers really annoys me sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard horror stories from parents who’ve endured intolerance, rudeness, even downright cruelty directed at their children. I’m grateful I haven’t had to deal with that so far. What I have encountered, more times than I can count, are well-meaning strangers who stare at Cooper with sympathetic eyes, then turn to me and say things like:

“My neighbor has a little Down’s boy. They’re such angels, aren’t they?”

“People with special needs are special gifts from God.”

“I love children with Down Syndrome. They’re like gentle lambs.”

Of course, I’ll smile and nod and thank them. But it takes all my will to keep my eyes from rolling and my mouth from spitting out exactly what I’m thinking. Which is usually something like this:

“Angel? Ha! Hell raiser would be more like it.”

“Aren’t we all ‘special gifts from God’ if you believe that sort of thing?”

“My son is not a gentle lamb. He is a warrior. You should see him body slam his big brother during a crib match.”

I know these people have good intentions. But their words remind me of a very painful reality — for the rest of his life, many people who meet Cooper might size him up in an instant, filing him neatly under the “special” label and not bothering to look much further. Which is a big loss for both sides. Raising a kid like Cooper feels like walking an eternal tightrope. I want to believe he’s just like any other kid — except he’s not. I say he doesn’t have “special needs,” but let’s face it, my older son didn’t require occupational, physical and speech therapy from the moment he was 6 weeks old. I don’t want Down syndrome to define him — except it does, in many ways. And why should that be a bad thing?

I just want people to understand there are many other things that make Cooper special besides having a disability. He can pick up a break-dancing routine in seconds. He loves learning new tricks to make people laugh. His favorite book is “Dinosaur Roar” and he knows when to roar, squeak and curl his hands into little claws when we’re reading it. He plays the bongos ferociously, ending every song by throwing his hands up in the air with a dramatic flourish. He worships his big brother, adores his Daddy, but reserves his biggest hugs, kisses and cuddles for Mommy. And like all 2-year-olds, he can be a real jerk sometimes.

In other words, Cooper has his own personality, with his own unique strengths, weaknesses and flaws, just like the rest of us.

So, well meaning strangers, please stop making assumptions about the kind of person he is based on other people you know with Down syndrome. It’s inaccurate and lazy to reduce this entire population to one mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, halo-wearing mass. And if you go this route, you could be missing out on getting to know some really great (or not so great) people.

So the next time you meet a child with a disability — or an adult for that matter — treat them like anyone else. Get to know them. Engage. Learn a little bit about them before forming your conclusion about what kind of person they are. You might be surprised at what you find.

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Originally published: April 28, 2017
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