I remember dropping my son off for day care one day when he was around a year old. He had been in his class there for several months by that point. We walked in like we always did, waving to the facility’s administrator on our way down the hall. I carried him into his classroom, handed him to his teacher, and turned to put his bottles into the refrigerator. Then I heard something that upset me more than it probably should have.
It wasn’t something that you would expect to be troubling. The exact opposite; it should have been heart-warming.
It was the sweet little voice of a child that was just starting to learn to say words. The word that came out of her mouth was certainly innocent. And I’m sure her mother was so proud of the way she was able to identify what was in front of her and articulate her thoughts out loud. Indeed, she affirmed what the child said:
“Yes, that is a baby!”
The little girl was not necessarily wrong. The term baby is kind of broad. And at the time, my son was certainly behaving much more like a baby than she was. She was already walking. She was probably feeding herself to some extent. She was apparently talking. Why was this such a hard thing to hear that day? Because this little girl, like most of my son’s class at the time, was younger than him. He had started in a class that was really intended for kids in a different age range from him due to space limitations and the date of his birth.
The point is he was not the baby in that class.
And yet, he was. It was obvious to not only the adults who came into that room, but to his peers as well.
He was different.
And of course he was. His peers just started talking one day, but he sees a speech therapist weekly. His peers began playing with toys without prompting. He had to learn play skills with the help of an occupational therapist. And his peers took their first steps long before he did. He was over two years old before all the hard work he’d put in with the help of his physical therapist finally paid off.
I had expected for differences to be obvious to his peers at some point, but I didn’t think that would happen so soon.
The whole episode concerned me. Would my son always just be that kid who everyone looks on with some level of condescension?
That concern still hangs in the back of my mind. It’s brought to the forefront each time someone calls him a baby, even though he is almost three. It’s a mistake that’s made by children and adults alike.
Recently, though, something unexpected and exciting happened. My son was playing in a room where another little boy was playing. The second child, who is not quite a year old, moved with fascination toward my son. He wanted to see what toy he had. He wanted to get his attention. He wanted to see what this big kid was doing. And when my son smiled at him, he smiled back.
He wasn’t a baby to that little boy. He wasn’t someone who was seen first and foremost as different. He was someone to look up to. Someone whose attention was worth having. Someone who was doing things that he wanted to do.
As they interacted, my son stood up and walked over to a different toy that was elevated above where they sat. The other boy followed him and pulled himself up to see what was so interesting.
Obviously, my son knew what was worth playing with, and this boy who could barely take a step staggered along with him (admittedly to the eventual annoyance of my son) because he wanted to follow him.
The significance of that moment was not lost on me. My son, who worked so hard to learn play skills and how to walk was encouraging this little boy to develop his own play skills and ability to walk. How was he doing it? By being a cool big kid that this little guy wanted to be like.
My son became a role model.
That little boy found a worthy person to strive to be like. He’s kindhearted, funny, curious, enthusiastic, hard-working, and smart. The more I get to know him, the more I see things about him that I wish I would better emulate.
There is no doubt that having Down syndrome makes my son unique. He is not like most of his peers in a lot of ways. And yet, he is so relatable to those who truly seek to get to know him. One new friend of his figured that out pretty quickly. I pray that everyone he meets throughout his life realizes the same thing.
They’ll be better people for it.