Early Education in Down Syndrome

This week I got to Zoom with my 4th grade students during their Counseling time. It was so great to get to see their faces and hear their voices! We weren’t Zooming just so they could sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, though. We were Zooming so we could talk about Down syndrome.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month and it’s also the month my school district celebrates Disabilities Awareness Week. It’s one of my favorite weeks/months of the school year because I love getting to teach my kids that having a disability does not mean there is something wrong with a person. It means that there is something different with the way a person’s body or mind, or sometimes both, work. We learn about different types of disabilities while always keeping our focus on the fact that a person with a disability is a person that deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.

For each class I gave them a basic explanation of the chromosomes and the extra copy people with Down syndrome have, some of the differences that causes for their brain and body, and how much they are able to learn to do when given the chance. Then I asked if anyone had questions about Down syndrome.

The students in the class I Zoomed with on Tuesday morning were either still half asleep, bored to tears, and/or experts on Down syndrome already so none of them had questions.

By Tuesday afternoon, I was questioning whether or not it was worth doing the next two days. If the information I was sharing with them was appropriate and meaningful or just falling on deaf ears. If spending the time talking with them would even make a difference.

As I Zoomed with another class on Wednesday morning, I could tell the students were a little more engaged as I went over the same basic information. When I invited them to ask questions, hands quickly went up into the air.

“Is it similar to autism?”

“Can you catch Down syndrome from someone who has it?”

“Is it rare?”

“Can it be cured?”

It was awesome! I answered their questions the best I could and loved the effort they were giving in trying to understand Down syndrome.

Today’s session was good, too. One student asked if kids with Down syndrome behaved worse than other kids, and another asked if kids with Down syndrome could breathe okay.

It was yesterday’s session, though, that helped me to know that doing this wasn’t a waste of time.

Down syndrome isn’t rare. It’s the most common chromosomal condition that occurs in babies. About 1 in every 700 babies are born with Down syndrome. That number would be higher but unfortunately approximately 67% of women choose to terminate their pregnancy following a prenatal diagnosis.

There is no cure for Down syndrome. And as I told my students, I wouldn’t want there to be one. Because if Moses didn’t have that extra chromosome, he wouldn’t be Moses. Same goes for a lot of other awesome people with Down syndrome.

My hope is that one or more (or all) of those amazing young kids will grow up and make a difference in the life of someone with Down syndrome.

Maybe one of them will be a doctor who tells expectant mothers, “Your baby has Down syndrome. I know this news is unexpected and not necessarily what you wanted to hear, but I want you to know that there is no reason to believe that your child won’t lead a very fulfilling life.”

A nurse that says, “Congratulations! You baby is beautiful and perfect.”

A teacher who says, “Let’s see what works best for you so that you can learn as much as you can while you’re in my class.”

A policy maker that understands people with Down syndrome deserve fair access to things like life insurance and organ transplants.

An employer that welcomes people with Down syndrome to work at their business in a capacity that is appropriate for them. That provides the training and opportunity for them to be successful and contribute to the success of the business.

A friend who accepts a person with Down syndrome for who he or she is. Who isn’t nice because you’re supposed to be nice to people with disabilities but because she truly enjoys being around him.

A partner or spouse who resists the urge to bail upon hearing the diagnosis. Who chooses to stay and love and support the mother and child through all the ups and downs.

A mother who refuses to abort the life growing inside her. Who chooses to love her baby unconditionally regardless of the number of chromosomes it has. Who chooses to focus on all that her child will be able to do when the world wants to tell her all about what it won’t be able to do. 

In the world of Down syndrome, we are taught that early intervention is key for the successful development of our children.

I believe that early education is also essential for progress to continue to be made when it comes to the Down syndrome community. Talk to your kids. Teach them about Down syndrome and other disabilities so that when they find themselves around someone who has an extra chromosome, who might sound a little “funny” when he talks, who needs a little extra time to understand what she’s hearing, or whose brain or body works a little differently in other ways, they know what to do.

Be kind. 

Show respect. 

Choose love.

A Letter to Mrs. Cordelia

In honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I want to share about one of my special role-models, Mrs. Cordelia Conn, through a letter I’ve written countless times to her in my head: 

Dear Mrs. Cordelia,

You had no idea, but you were one of the early pioneers and advocates for people with Down syndrome and a personal role model for me. And you did it simply by being the best mom you could be to Patrick.

When I was younger, I always admired you. You had a confidence about you that even a young girl like me could pick up on. You had the sense of humor that was essential in being a mother of seven. There was a genuineness and openness about you that just felt safe. You told it like it was without a cloud of anger or judgment hanging over your statements. 

What I remember most, though, was how you were with Patrick. How you acted like he was a normal human being that belonged anywhere he wanted to be and especially belonged wherever you were – church, parties, Boomland, etc. You didn’t try to hide that he had Down syndrome, and you didn’t emphasize it, either. You made it clear that Patrick was not a person to be pitied or coddled. You had expectations of him and didn’t make excuses for him when he did or said something you didn’t approve of. Most importantly, you treated him with respect and love, and I saw that. 

Neither one of us knew it yet, but God did. He knew that I needed a role-model to look to when I had my own son with Down syndrome. He knew that I needed more than to just know Patrick and see all that he was able to do. He knew I needed to know you. To see you as a mom to Patrick so I would know what kind of mom I would want to be to my own son. 

When I got to sit down and talk with you last September, you told me that you didn’t know that Patrick had Down syndrome until you took him to your family doctor for his first round of routine immunizations when he was two-months-old or older. 

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked you if you thought the doctors and nurses knew he had Down syndrome when he was born, and you said, “Supposedly they did, but they thought maybe I couldn’t handle it. Who knows what their feelings were?” When I asked if he was healthy as a baby, you again just said, “Supposedly.” To say I was shocked to hear these things is a gross understatement because in the world of information overload we live in today, the chances of a baby being born with Down syndrome and it not being communicated to the mother is virtually unfathomable. To not know if he or she had any medical conditions that would need additional medical attention or care. 

But that’s what makes you so incredible. I honestly don’t think it mattered that you didn’t know right away that Patrick had Down syndrome. Because Down syndrome or not, he was your baby and you were going to love and provide for him the best you could. 

You may have only met Moses a handful of times, but your impact on him is much more than the sum of your brief meetings. Because of you, he had a mom that was ready to accept, respect, see, and love him for the person he is and will become. 

As we talked, you were amazed that Moses has been receiving therapies since he was 6-weeks old. That he was about to start preschool and would be going to school just like any other child. Those things were not available for Patrick, but yet you still made sure that he wasn’t just tucked away and dismissed. You gave him the opportunities to grow. To be seen. To be known. 

Along with a journal and some of Patrick’s old books, you gave me an angel to take home to Moses. You told me to put it up so that he couldn’t reach it and so that it could watch over him. I’m thankful to know that he has another even better angel looking over him now. 

Thank you, Mrs. Cordelia. With my whole heart I thank you for being the mom you were to Patrick so I could be the mom I am to Moses. 

Love, 

Jenny (a.k.a. Moses’ mom)

In loving memory of Mrs. Cordelia Ann Rock Conn (1928 – 2019)

Seeing Him

Over the last four years, I’ve heard or read about parents who say “I don’t even see my child’s Down syndrome anymore.” 

Me?

I’m still waiting.

I’ll be honest, in the last 3 years and 11 months, not a day has gone by that I don’t see something about Moses and think about him having Down syndrome. Sometimes it’s a facial expression. Sometimes it’s because I see him working to master a new skill or doing something I’ve never seen him do before. Sometimes it’s because of something totally random and I find myself thinking about Down syndrome and him.

There have been days that I’ve wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”. Why is it that these other parents can look at their child for an entire day and not once think about the fact that he or she has Down syndrome, yet somehow I can’t? 

Then last night it hit me that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong in me seeing my son for who he is. Seeing all of who he is. Including the extra chromosome that makes him so wonderfully and uniquely him. 

Yes, in so many ways, he really is like any other nearly 4-year-old kid. He makes messes, gets into his sister’s things, throws fits, says “Mom” on repeat throughout the day, and resists going to bed. 

I see that.

I also see his beautiful almond-shaped eyes that all but disappear when he laughs. I hear his muffled speech and celebrate when he says another word more clearly than he did yesterday. I see him work hard to open his yogurt by himself and cheer for himself when he succeeds. I see his smile that can get so big it takes up his entire face. 

Why wouldn’t I want to see those things? 

To say “I don’t see his Down syndrome.” is akin to saying, “I don’t see him.” 

As if having an extra chromosome is wrong. As if there is something wrong with him being fully and completely him. 

I’m no longer going to wonder when the day will come that I won’t see that he has Down syndrome. It’s a part of what makes him my Moses Alexander the Great, and he deserves to be seen.

Where I’m Supposed to Be

I’m where I’m supposed to be.

This is the mantra that has gotten me through this week as I’ve found myself struggling to make sense of life these days. 

This isn’t new territory, either. A couple of months ago, I was going through some old things and I came across a letter I had written to God. I can remember writing it like it was last week instead of 12 years ago. At that time, I was definitely not where I wanted to be. To be honest, I felt like I was on the road to nowhere and I was lost even trying to find my way there. Not exactly what I had pictured my life looking like at 27. 

In the letter, I poured my heart out to God. All the thoughts and feelings of anger and frustration, sadness and loneliness, confusion and fear. I asked Him to help me know what to do to help myself. 

Here I am 12 years later in a much different season of my life yet feeling those same emotions and a little lost again. And this time it’s not just myself I have to worry about. The stakes are definitely much higher now, and my sense of urgency to know what to do to help myself and my family is much more intense.

Where am I? 

I’m at home.

I’m serving my family. I’m cooking meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, and cleaning up messes. I’m cheering for my daughter as she learns to make a lowercase ‘a’ and for my son as he correctly identifies objects when given two choices. I’m rocking outdoor recess duty. I’m snuggling with Josie when she crawls into bed with me each morning and rocking Moses at naptime because he wants me to. I’m taking deep breaths so I don’t completely lose my temper and reminding myself to keep small problems small. I’m asking for hugs and forgiveness when I fail to do both. I’m excited to see my husband when he gets home so I get to talk to an adult and hear about the outside world. 

When I was at work, I would often announce “I’m going to go change lives!” Now I feel like the only thing I’m changing is diapers. 

Believe you me when I say that I NEVER saw myself as a housewife and definitely not as a stay-at-home mom. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with either of those by any means. It’s hard work and the pay is horrible. I’m one “official” week in and I’m ready to turn in my two-week notice. 

But I’m supposed to be here. Even when I don’t want to wash another dish, it feels right. I don’t have the luxury of knowing why I’m doing exactly what I never wanted to do, but I do have the luxury of trusting that God knows why I’m here and will help me to understand when I’m supposed to. 

Over the last 12 years I have learned that life isn’t about getting where you want to be and staying there. It’s about continuing to live and experience and learn and grow, and that still includes going through some growing pains at times.

I’m where I’m supposed to be

And who knows? This may end up being the best place I’ve been to yet.

Communication: More Than Just Talking

“Mom, when is Moses going to start talking?”

That’s the question Josie asks me every so often.

My usual answer is, “When he’s ready.”

That answer does little to satisfy her. And I get it. She knows he’s 3-years-old. She knows that Moses’ best friend next door is three and has been talking up a storm for a while now. She sees videos of herself talking when she was younger than three. She also sees that physically, Moses is doing what most other three-year-olds are doing as far was walking, playing, eating, etc. So I get it that it’s hard for her to understand why Moses can do some of things that other kids his age are able to do but not others. Like talk.

To be fair to him, he does talk. I compare it to the babbling that babies do as a precursor to talking. And to be honest, it’s pretty freaking cute. Sometimes it’s just one or two sounds in response to something. Other times it’s a long-winded lecture about something that is not to his liking. My favorite is when he gets really excited and does this high-pitched cheer with a huge smile on his face.

He does know some actual words: Ma, Da, ball, Alexa, yes (with an emphasis on the ‘s’), and no.

But there are many more that he knows but isn’t able to pronounce accurately. For example, “de” is “thank you” and “come” is “welcome”. For the most part, when he says certain things I know what he’s saying. I know that when he says “ble” he wants a cutie, “Bo” is “Elmo”, “Ca” is “Cookie”, and “Gar” is “Oscar”. He also knows the signs for “more”, “please”, “thank you”, “milk”, and a few more.

His go-to form of communication is to either say “c’mere” or grab my hand and walk me to what he wants. If it’s something in a cabinet or the refrigerator, he’ll point to and guide me with “yes” and “no”.

Besides, he communicates in so many other ways.

Is it always easy? No. There are times when, despite both of our best efforts, I cannot figure out what he wants or is trying to tell me. There are times that I know he knows exactly what I’m telling him to do or not to do, like pick up the apple he threw down, and he openly defies me. There are times that I need him to understand what I’m telling him to do or not do, like go outside by himself, and I know he just doesn’t understand yet. There are tears and shouts of frustration for both of us at times.

But overall, I don’t consider his delay in speech to be a major issue.

Besides, he communicates in so many other ways that are even better than words.

Like the way his face lights up when he sees me walk in the door. The way he gets up, does his little preparatory dance, yells “Ma!”, and then runs to hug me. The way he giggles when I chase him around the kitchen. The way he watches and mimics Josie, especially when she’s dancing. The way his lower lip sticks out and he tucks his chin down when he gets hurt or sad. The way he pats my back as I hold him and hug him tight. The way he cuts his eyes to the side before he makes a break for it when I’m trying to get him dressed.

One of the most common questions I see posted from mothers who have just found out their baby will have or does have Down syndrome is, “What can I expect?” And I know from experience that what they’re really asking is, “What hardships or challenges can I expect?” It’s no secret that a person with Down syndrome will have physical and cognitive delays to some degree. However, what I feel like it is virtually impossible to help those new or expecting parents to realize is that those delays will actually serve to highlight strengths not only within their child but within themselves.

Josie started talking when she was a year old and hasn’t looked back. Knowing what she was thinking, needed, or wanted has never been hard to figure out. To be honest, I feel like we were quite spoiled in regards to the ease in which we were able to communicate with her early on.

However, with Moses, I feel like we have actually been given the gift of realizing that communication goes much deeper than words. With him, his communication might be more underdeveloped for his chronological age, but in that I find that it still has more of the simplicity, authenticity, and genuineness of that of a younger child. With him I don’t have to wonder if he truly means what he’s communicating because he is still so genuine in what he feels, needs, and wants. Sure, I may have to pay more attention to his nonverbal cues, but is that really such a bad thing? Especially if it means that I am more in tune with my child and it also helps me to be more in tune with others that I communicate with?

The next time you’re talking with someone, take the time to pay attention to how her eyes light up when she’s talking about something she’s passionate about. Or how his body language changes as he searches for the right words to explain what he’s thinking and feeling. Think about whether or not her facial expression and tone match up with the words she’s saying. Pay attention to these things within yourself, too. Are you fully communicating your honest thoughts and feelings?

Moses has taught me that when it comes down to it, while spoken words are important and meaningful, the true beauty of communication goes far beyond words. The beauty is found in the genuine and raw thought and emotion that children are so artful at showing. Adults are capable of showing the same thing but learn to mask it for a variety of reasons. Moses communicates in his way without malice, without ridicule, without hidden meaning or agenda. I never knew that my child with a speech delay would be teaching me lessons on communicating. But then again, I shouldn’t be that surprised. He is pretty extraordinary.

Letting Faith Be Bigger Than Fear

When Josie was a newborn, every night that I would lay down to go to sleep after putting her down to sleep, I would immediately begin to panic. I can remember craving sleep so badly but being scared to go to sleep because I might not hear her if she needed me. That’s when I learned to turn my worries into a prayer. I would fall asleep while repeating “Worry about nothing, pray about everything…God, keep my baby safe” in my mind.

After a while, my fears began to lessen as I grew more confident in being a mom and Josie continued to grow bigger and stronger. When Moses came along, I had the familiar sense of panic set it at night during the first couple of weeks, but so did the familiar prayer.

For the past few days, I’ve been wearing a bracelet a former student gave me when Moses was about to have surgery to repair the hole in his heart. The bracelet simply says “Faith, Not Fear”.

That has been a struggle for me during the last couple of months.

I keep going back to a flippant comment I made back in early March when concern about this virus really began picking up. It was basically along the lines of “natural selection is still a thing and unfortunately some people are just going to be too weak to survive this”. Obviously, at the time I had no idea about the horrific, grim realities of this virus or that my son is included in the category of the weak. I also remember casually commenting that “ultimately God is in control despite our best efforts”. (I would seriously like to go back and slap myself across the face for being so nonchalant about it all.)

Because of Moses’ history with complications from RSV (aka “the common cold”), he is considered high risk. Also, there is some research coming out that the extra chromosome Moses has carries immune system genes that are overexpressed and may increase the chances that the virus will result in serious complications or death. So yeah, there’s that.

Earlier this week, he had a cardiology appointment to make sure the device that fixed the hole in his heart was still in place, not blocking any veins or arteries, and that there was no enlargement of his heart or increased pressure on his lungs. Thankfully, he got a glowing report from his echocardiogram and EKG.

So the good news is that his heart is healthy and strong.

When I talked to the cardiologist as well as the nurse practitioner from the Down syndrome clinic at Children’s Hospital, they both said that while it’s good news about his heart, there’s no way to predict how his body will respond when he is exposed to COVID-19. Their recommendation was to continue limited social contact and practice social distancing guidelines when we are around people.

As Tyson and I were talking about starting to see people again socially that evening, I could feel my heart beating faster. I can feel it now as I type just thinking about exposing Moses to the virus.

The thing is, the logical part of my brain (the “upstairs brain” as Dan Siegel would put it) knows that I can’t protect Moses from being exposed to COVID-19 any more than I can protect him from being exposed to the flu or RSV without completely isolating ourselves from the world. That’s just not possible for so many reasons, but one of the main ones is that it’s not fair to Josie. She’s a people person. She misses her friends. She misses her grandparents. She misses her cousins. She needs social interaction.

I also know that we simply don’t know how Moses will respond to COVID-19. He could be asymptomatic. He could have mild-to-moderate symptoms. He could require hospitalization. He could require ventilation. He could recover. He could not.

This is when the logical part of my brain is overtaken by the emotional part. The “downstairs brain”. The part that drowns out “Worry about nothing, pray about everything”.

Did you know that when a person is on a ventilator, the monitor that it’s hooked up to shows how much work the patient is doing as far as breathing? I didn’t know that until about 3 days after Moses had been on the ventilator. I noticed that the second wave form had two colors instead of just one. I want to say that it had been solid red, but then I noticed a little purple at the bottom of the wave. (I could be wrong about the colors, but it’s really beside the point.) The point is, I had been staring at that monitor, watching the waves, watching his heart rate, oxygen saturation level, and blood pressure numbers for 3 days, and I didn’t know that the middle wave, the red one, was showing that the machine was doing all the work for Moses. He was not doing any work to breathe. The ventilator was doing it all for him.

For three days.

Did you know that being on a ventilator means that you are on life support? I didn’t know that until about 3 months after Moses had been home and a friend mentioned how scary it must have been for him to be on life support. I remember shaking my head and telling her he hadn’t been on life support, just a ventilator. She gently told me that being on a ventilator was life support. When I looked it up later and saw that she was right, I was horrified.

Did you know that my worst fear is that I would have to watch my sweet boy be on life support again? To stare at the monitor and will him to do some of the work to breathe. To know that if he wasn’t on that ventilator, his body would grow too tired and too weak and his organs would begin shutting down.

Did you know that my absolute worst fear is that this time I wouldn’t get to bring him home?

To even think about it makes me want to hole up in my house with just the four of us until there is a vaccine and/or a proven, effective treatment for this stupid virus.

But I know that’s not healthy or fair for us. Even Moses. He needs more social interaction just as much as Josie does. Even staying home doesn’t guarantee he won’t somehow get it.

In short, I am not in control here. And that scares the shit out of me, more now than ever.

Trust me, I’ve been praying.

Every day.

For the health and safety of my whole family.

I’m doing my best to turn my worries into prayers and then trusting that God will hear and answer them the way I want him to.

A few weeks ago, I read an editorial by Bishop Edward Rice in which he reminds us that “faith is easy when everything is going well” and that some people think “…if I believe, then nothing bad should ever happen to me”. I agree with the first statement, and I know the second statement is not true. I also know that just because bad things do happen, it doesn’t mean that God has left me. It’s then that He’s with me the most. That He’s going to help me through the trials, heartbreak, and pain that come with life. That He’s going to hold me when I’m worn down and need to rest. And that He’ll give me the strength to keep moving forward.

As hard as it might be, I know it’s time to live by the words “Faith, Not Fear”. It’s time open our doors and begin to venture back out into the world. I’m not saying I’m ready to throw caution to the wind, start shouting “QUE SERA, SERA!”, and go hit up the next massive pool party. But I am ready to let my faith be bigger than my fears. To know and to trust that whatever God’s will is, whatever He has planned for Moses, Josie, Tyson, and me, He is in control and will be with us the whole time.

Fear can be paralyzing. Especially when the thing you fear is something you’ve experienced before. Faith is what allows you to be able to move again. It’s not always easy for us humans to let our faith be bigger than our fear, but thankfully we have a patient, understanding God who is always with us to help us get moving again.