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Dear  Teachers, Staff, and Students:

Welcome back from Fall Break! I can’t believe an entire quarter of the school year has already flown by. By now you might have met my daughter, Sophie, who is a freshman. If not, maybe you’ve seen her in the halls, at cheer tryouts, or singing at the school’s recent choir concert.

Sophie is probably the smallest kid in high school. She might hit 4’10″ in her Birkenstocks. Most days she can’t wait to get out of bed and get ready for school — she really hated the middle school dress code, and loves to choose her outfit each morning. Like a lot of kids, she’s not great at math. She really loves her dance elective. Pretty much every day, she eats lunch in the choir room with her friend Tatum. I think she might have a crush on a senior boy. She’s currently debating whether or not to try out for the spring musical, Shrek.

There’s something else you should know about Sophie: She has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is the most common genetic condition but don’t feel bad if you’ve never met anyone who has it; it’s pretty rare. Only about 1 in 700 babies are born with it these days.

As  you already know if you’re in class with her, Sophie is enrolled in regular high school courses; often, she has an adult working with her. It’s awesome that she has this opportunity, we call it being “mainstreamed.” Not so long ago, kids with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities were sent away at birth to institutions. They were not raised with their sisters and brothers, or educated alongside their neighbors.

That has changed, thanks to amazing schools like this one. But because this is a relatively new thing, it means that Sophie is a little bit of a pioneer.  Most days, that’s really cool. Every day, it’s a challenge.

Sophie was the first person with Down syndrome I’d ever met. You can imagine how awkward that was for me, since I’m her mom and we met when she was born. So I get it if maybe you’re not quite sure how to approach her — or perhaps need her to give you a little space.

In the last 14 years, I’ve learned a lot about Down syndrome, and, of course, a lot about Sophie. October is Down syndrome Awareness Month, so I’ve put together a list of things that Sophie, our friends and family, and I thought you should know about it — and her. If you ever have questions, you can find me on my blog at girlinapartyhat.com or at amy_silverman@yahoo.com. And here’s a video that explains Down syndrome really well.

Down syndrome is not contagious.

Each of us has 46 chromosomes — 23 from mom, 23 from dad in each of the millions of the cells that make up our bodies. This happens at conception, when the sperm and egg meet. Sometimes science intervenes and an embryo winds up with more chromosomes, or something goes haywire with one.  Down syndrome is also known as Trisomy 21, because it means that a person has an extra 21st chromosome. Sometimes not every chromosome is affected; that’s called mosaicism. Like Sophie, most people with Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes in each of their cells.

Because of this chromosomal difference, people with Down syndrome sometimes share similar characteristics. People with DS are often smaller in stature, have almond-shaped eyes, flat noses, straight hair, and small mouths. They can have hypotonia, which means low muscle tone and extra flexibility (you should see Sophie do the splits!). Sophie has a little more trouble than the rest of us when it comes to tying shoes, buttoning buttons, and handwriting. About half the babies born with Down syndrome have a heart defect (you might have noticed Sophie’s scar — she had open heart surgery at 4 months and again at 4 years, but we’re hoping never again). All people with Down syndrome are affected cognitively, which means learning is more difficult for them, to varying degrees.

Down syndrome is different for every person who has it.

This one is really important. It’s natural when people share a label — and some physical characteristics — to assume that they are the same. But just as that’s not the case with other groups, it’s not the case with people with Down syndrome. I’ve heard staff at the school comment that people with Down syndrome “are all nice” and “all like to high-five.” Not really. I’ve met lots of people with Down syndrome. Some like to dance and sing and act silly; others are quiet and athletic. The stereotype is that people with Down syndrome are loving. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it isn’t. Just like with the rest of us.

Just like there’s no one out there quite like you, there’s no one out there quite like Sophie, a girl who loves YA novels, YouTube makeup tutorials, Disneyland, shopping, poodles, going out to eat, sleepovers, ballet class, the beach, Project Runway, and being with her cousins — and dislikes spicy foods, chores, riding in the back seat, and hearing her mom sing.

“Sophie’s funny, she’s creative, she’s an artist, she’s motivated, she’s determined, playful, friendly, fun, beautiful,” says her sister Annabelle, who is 16 and a junior at another high school in town. “She’s also sassy and manipulative and bossy but also the best sister.”

Annabelle’s advice when it comes to someone with Down syndrome?

“Get to know them. Talk to them. And don’t care about what other people think.”

People with Down syndrome are often just like the rest of us.

“People with Down syndrome go to college, play in bands, drive cars, fall in love, are DJs and reality TV stars, get their hearts broken, have sex, get bored, play sports, love rap music, need help sometimes, love to help other people, have jobs, get grouchy, own restaurants, are artists, wear braces, love ice cream, have lots of adult friends, are good friends, want to make friends,” says my friend Lisa, whose son, Cooper, is a high school sophomore and has Down syndrome.

People with Down syndrome might learn differently than you and I.

One of Sophie’s long-time instructors explains that often people with Down syndrome “process information differently but are able to learn. When Sophie learns a skill or concept she never really forgets it; she just may not be able to remember it on the spot. Like in a test.”

You can say “no” to a person with Down syndrome. 

Sophie is an amazing self-advocate. From the time she was a very little girl, she’s known what she wanted — and worked to get it. That’s awesome. It’s why she is so successful in so many ways. But in class or social situations, it can mean she comes on a little strong. Just as you would with any student or friend, you can tell her no! In fact, it’s a good idea. Don’t be mean, but also don’t hesitate to be honest. As a family friend put it, “Sophie wants to be seen. Like we all do.” You can acknowledge her but also let her know that it’s not appropriate to interrupt a conversation or insist on answering a question.

People with Down syndrome might not want to talk about it — or have it.

When Sophie was 8, she started telling us that she doesn’t like having Down syndrome. She struggles with it. Like most high school kids, she wants to be just like her peers. If you ask her about what it’s like to have Down syndrome, she probably won’t want to talk about it.

She is happy that I’m writing a list. Sophie wants people to know what DS is. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to say here and she said this:

“Don’t judge the people with Down syndrome.”

 

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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome, Uncategorized by Amysilverman

4 Responses to “6 Things We Want You to Know About Down Syndrome: An Open Letter to the Teachers, Staff, and Students at My Daughter’s High School”

  1. Thank you for having a voice and helping all of us to be more aware of Down syndrome. Both Sophie and you are making profound difference. Stay the path!

  2. You always write an Awesome article. I wish this blog was out when my ex boyfriend (who had DS) was at our high school. Thank You for advocating for such a lovable cousin as Sophie.

  3. My daughter Solveig, who has Down Syndrome, is 15 and a sophomore in high school. She is usually shy, a good artist, loves karaoke and has a first rate adolescent attitude – eye rolls and all. while she loves to give high fives to some of us, sometimes, she is actually a prickly personality much like the rest of the family.

  4. bravo . .perhaps the biggest thing we need to do this month (and every month) is simply celebrate the personhood of all folks – especially our daughters who are taking on a well deserved recognition (finally) of the absolute power, creativity, uniqueness and wonder they hold . . Your words are insightful and wonderful . . Down Syndrome is a genetic condition – one we need to appreciate/understand but in no way is it an apt description of soul or qualifier of dreamsl. Sophie is making her mark in the world and in each of our hearts . . I love her in every way.

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