Go ahead, ask me about Down syndrome
Several weeks ago I took my two youngest sons to a playground near our house. Lately it has been a little (ok, a lot) more work to be out with both of them. Most of the morning was spent chasing Noah, my 3 year old with Down syndrome, because he thinks it's hilarious to run away from me. I was also trying to stop my daredevil 16 month old from diving off the play structure head first. There was a moment where they both ran in separate directions and I had to decide...who needs my attention the most? The 3 year old running into the middle of a baseball game or the 16 month old trying to hug (choke) a giant unattended labradoodle? This is why I try to mainly frequent fully enclosed playgrounds!
Shortly after that I was able to corral them into the sandbox where they happily played (ate sand) for about 15 minutes. During that time, Noah approached a little boy who was probably about 4 years old playing with some sand toys. Noah signed "turn please" and reached for the shovel that was sitting next to the boy. I explained to the boy what Noah was asking.
"Why can't he talk?" asked the boy.
"Well" I began, "he is still learning how to talk and in the meantime he uses sign language to communicate."
"But why can't he talk? My little brother is smaller than him and can talk." I love how matter of fact kids are.
Before I had a chance to reply, the boy's mom gave me an apologetic look and shushed her son. "Let's go over by the swings," she said as they rushed off.
To be honest, the whole exchange made me a little sad. But I wasn't sad about what had happened. I was sad about what didn't happen.
I saw it as a lost opportunity.
That little boy was honestly curious about Noah. He was asking harmless questions that I would have been more than happy to answer. What an incredible opportunity that would have been for the boy to learn about Down syndrome. To learn that there are kids who learn differently than he does and develop at different rates. To learn that being different is not something to be ashamed of. To learn that it's ok to ask questions. To learn that despite differences, he could still find some common ground with my son.
Instead, he learned that to ask why someone is different is taboo. That there is shame around it. His questions obviously made his mother uncomfortable and therefore he will probably learn to feel uncomfortable in those situations in the future. Kids are usually very accepting, it’s us adults that tend to put a stigma around things
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to judge that mom. That totally would have been me before I had Noah. I wouldn't have known what to say and probably would have thought that my son's questions would be offensive or unwanted.
I can't speak for other parents of kids with disabilities, but I welcome questions about Noah. I want to help shape the perception that my children's peers have about people with disabilities. I want them to know there is no shame in asking questions. I would much rather explain Noah's differences to them in a way that is positive instead of there being uncertainty or unanswered questions in the back of their minds. Kids are curious. They just want to make sense of their world. In my opinion, sharing matter of factly about why and how my child is different takes some of the fear out of it. Different doesn’t mean worse. It doesn’t mean less than. And it doesn’t have to be scary. Through Noah, I get a chance to share that with others and I think it’s a great lesson to learn.
Don't be so afraid that you will say the wrong thing that you don't say anything. If your child (or you) wants to ask why Noah isn’t talking yet, or why he throws things sometimes, or why he is smaller than other kids his age...go right ahead. I won’t be offended.