When. That was my favorite question in the beginning. Even if it is not always specifically answerable, the question of when held a note of hope. When promises it will happen, it is only the timeline that is unclear.
On one occasion I asked the question, Will he? I was met with a long pause. Will, like when, is also not specifically answerable. But, unlike the question of when, will promises no hope. The question of will hangs on the edge of a cliff, it is random, free falling. To start with, there are already too many unanswered questions. Even the slightest flash of light, a word of hope, is strength to step forward to, even if blindly at first.
There may be no such thing as a bad question. But there is such a thing as better questions. I learned that quickly. When you are living in a place of question marks, don’t ask for more question marks. Ask questions that have a hint of hope. You don’t have to see the light, only to know that it is there. That there is a chance. That there is an opportunity. That there is something to step toward to. That is enough.
I didn’t know if Wil would talk. Nobody knew. At first I asked will he talk. No one can say, was the answer. Then I quickly learned to rephrase that as When. No one could answer either, but the latter moved us in a forward direction. When is progressive. When looks ahead. Will just wonders.
Wil’s first words were a thrill. Like any baby, he babbled. Like any mother, I heard decipherable words in his babble. The question was, when would two words come? Two words were much greater than one. Two words meant comprehension. Two words meant that three words would come. Three words meant that sentences would come. Three words meant that he could communicate with others. Three words meant four and five word sentences to come. Four and five words meant a complete sentence. Complete sentences meant he could make conversation. Making conversation meant making friends. Making friends meant the ability to have a social life. Having a social life meant having an enriching life. Having an enriching and full life meant the ability to have a job and succeed in adulthood. Not if, but when. Hope. Forward progress.
“Goldfish, Mom.” Not just “Goldfish” but “Goldfish, Mom.” Then, “Goldfish, Mom,” expanded to “I want Goldfish, Mom.” I couldn’t wait to share with Matt, “Wil said, I WANT Goldfish. Not just Goldfish, but I WANT Goldfish.” The flash of light was so bright I could hardly see. Not if, but when. Hope. Forward progress.
Soon, “Light” turned into “Turn off the light.” “Go to the store” turned into “I go to the store” and then into “I am going to the store.”
Wil talks in complete sentences now, but I continue to thrill at the formation of any new addition of a word. I have new questions of whens now, but the present whens continue to hold their hope, their strength and their promise of forward progress. Our first questions of when are our building blocks for the promise of new hopes and dreams.
Wil looked up at the sunset and pointed, “Mom, look! The sunset is beautiful.”
“Yes it is, Wil.” Almost as beautiful as your words used to show it to me. I will never forget to be thankful for those words, because I remember when.
We walked down the hallway of the church, where the meeting was being held. Matt held the baby carrier, swaying slightly with the gait of his walk. It was somewhat dim in the hallway, Matt and my footfalls echoing off the walls. It was evening and the congregation had long returned home from the morning’s service. Though this was the first time we had set foot inside this church, I imagined the vibration of the organ’s music under my feet, the choir in white robes—a bright satin sash of solid color draped diagonally across their chests. White candles being lit, the rise of the preacher behind the pulpit, singing along heartily with his choir–-his flock forgiving his tone deafness for his heart for his Lord.
The sound of voices ahead broke the reverie of the imaginary church service in my mind. The mind is a master of distraction. For that brief moment of choir-filled distraction, I was thankful. My mind had been a swirl of unanswered questions since our son was born just over a month ago. I felt I was living in some kind of surreal dream. Thoughts swirling like Picasso clouds above my head. A cloud is a cloud, and yet, different.
Matt and I followed the sound of voices and found ourselves in a very typical church classroom. Spacious, rectangular, utilitarian. An oblong table had been constructed with two or three long tables pushed next to each other on each side of the room, with one long table connecting the ends of both sides. The tables were lined with chairs. No one was sitting. Women stood around the outskirts of the table, and a few men (I was relieved to see for Matt). The women, and men, were clustered in small groups of four or five. But they didn’t stay in their groups. They would mingle and move around from group to group. There was a sense of ease about them—they all knew one another.
To the far right of the room was an open area. About ten children ran around laughing and playing. Tears started streaming down my face. I couldn’t even place emotions to what I was feeling, it was all jumbled up inside of me. If I had to scoop it all up in my arms and label it, I’d call it “overwhelm.” I was “overwhelmed.”
There were a few adults in this area too, chatting with one another, playing with the kids, or redirecting a child from taking off to a door. It all seemed so normal, but it wasn’t.
“Hi, have we met before?” A woman was standing in front of me.
“Oh! Um, I’m sorry, I just…um, we are the Taylors. I’m Christie. This is my husband, Matt, and um, this is our little guy, Wil. He’s just over a month old now. We have twin girls too. They are home with my mother-in-law right now.”
“Very nice to meet you, I’m so glad you came,” she said, and put her arm on my shoulder. “Let me introduce you to some parents.” When things don’t feel normal inside, the simplest normal responses are breathed in deep like the fresh air they are.
I don’t remember all of the people Matt and I met, but we met almost everyone in that room. The common theme, over and over was, “yes, this is a challenging journey, but a very joyful and gratifying one. Though you may not see it now, you will. I promise, I promise.”
I didn’t see as far into the journey as they did, but their promises were my beacon. Though I didn’t grasp the full meaning of their statements, I could now see beyond the blur surreal clouds I was living in, heavy with question marks.
Soon, the meeting began and we all sat down in one of the chairs that lined the oblong table. The majority of the meeting was about learning styles for our kids. Before Wil had even reached 2 months old, I discovered that day that our kids with Down syndrome are mainly visual learners and math tended to be the most challenging subject. I don’t remember many other details about the sit-down portion of that meeting.
However, I did take home one key element–questions are good, but you can also get too far ahead of yourself. I wanted to know everything, right now. I wanted those funky, surreal clouds to disappear and the answers to make themselves known. And they would, in time. In time I would learn about Wil’s math skills. In time I would learn about Wil’s visual learning. But right then, I realized that what I most needed was having my feelings validated. For someone to say, you know what, I was there too. For someone to say, yes, you have a beautiful baby, but it’s also ok to feel sad, to feel scared, to feel like you don’t know what is happening. For someone to say, we have tried to decipher the same Picasso clouds too, and we have walked through them, and we promise, and promise again, the sun is shining on the other side. It may be a Picasso sun, and you will appreciate this type of sun more for having known the Picasso clouds.
Time is hugely discomforting as you wait for answers. And that is exactly why time is also a healer. Some things must happen with time. With experience. With day-to-day learning. Living in the unknown is an unsettling place to be. I thought knowing the answers would heal my pain. But it was the time with my son, and experiences with my son, that opened my eyes to the beauty of our new landscape.
On the last Sunday of September each year, I walk into a big park. Some years there is sunshine. Some years there are clouds. And some years there is rain. But every year, you will find multiple volunteers assembling long rows of tables lined with chairs. A big truck will pull up and unpack banners, balloons, t-shirts, food trays and such. Another big truck will arrive with a stage and band equipment. Once the stage, instruments and speakers are set up, the music begins to play. There are many spare instruments laid out for anyone who would like to play with the band.It doesn’t take long before a huge group of kids and adults with and without Down syndrome are dancing and playing with the band. There are multiple families and friends clustered around the stage. They mingle and move around and talk with one another. There is a sense of ease about them—even if they don’t know one another, they all have a common bond that brings them together.
This is a surreal dream. One that I now can’t imagine not living in. Those funky Picasso clouds and sun I once wondered at, are our normal. The promises I held so tightly to those years ago did come true. Time, experience, and support truly are healers. If I had to scoop it all up in my arms and label it, I’d still call it “overwhelm.” Overwhelm of joy, gratitude, fortitude and community.
Many schools have a peer-to-peer program in the middle and/or high schools. These peer-to-peer programs are where a typically developing student is linked with a student with special needs. At our school this program is called Connect. Wil, who is in 7th grade, has been linked with two high school students, a male and a female.
Wil adores his Connect friends. They visit him during his Independent Life Skills time in the resource room. They work with him on projects, crafts and cooking. He most especially enjoys cooking with his Connect friends. It’s been an enriching experience for Wil to work with his Connect friends, and I believe for his Connect friends to work with him. On days when Wil is feeling unmotivated, his teachers will remind him he is seeing his Connect friends, and that will–on most days–perk him up.
Being in 7th grade is an interesting time for most students. Their bodies are changing, their hormones are firing, and their independence is sought. Wil is no different. His assertion for independence has him taking a few liberties with his Connect friends. He may pick up one of their spoons and throw it on the floor. Or give them a hug then mess up their hair. He’s pushing the boundaries, and also looking for attention. If he were a typical student throwing a friend’s spoon on the floor, or messing their hair, he’d get a “Hey, what did you do that for?” However, kids with special needs tend to get some extra latitude. Wil may get a laugh, rather than a reprimand. Or his behavior will go ignored as the kids simply do not know what to say. His typical peers want to be kind, and fear upsetting him.
I completely understand this, it can be complicated with the communication differences. Wil is not in elementary school anymore. Kids talk a lot faster, there is lightening back and forth processing, and Wil can feel lost in the sea of back and forth communication. A toss of a spoon, or a mess of the hair takes all of that back-and-forth and draws it to a halt. He gets the reaction he was looking for, everyone is kind and thinks, “Oh that’s just Wil,” and moves on.
If you decide to have a dialogue with Wil about why this is wrong and not respectful to friends, you will see his attention wander and probably before you are done talking, he’ll have tossed your spoon again. If you get upset with Wil, he may cry or shut down. He hears and feels the anger and takes this as an attack on his person rather than a correction of the act. A straightforward and firm, “Please do not do that. That’s my spoon, I was eating with it.” Or “Please do not mess my hair. I don’t like it.” He’ll understand that you don’t like it and why in just a few short words. I can’t promise he won’t do it again, but it will come to a halt the more that is said with each instance. And most importantly, he is being treated and respected like a peer.
This is why Wil’s relationship with his sisters is very beneficial. Basically, they don’t put up with his crap. If he does something like talking with his mouth full, Katherine will say, “Wil, that is gross. Babies do that.”
“I’m not a baby!” He will yell back. And that’s the end of that.
Or if he is badgering his sisters for attention, they will change gears with the power of distraction. “Hey Wil, let’s go walk Woody.” They will remind him to get his boots on, that it’s muddy. On the walk, Wil will find every big stick he can and show it to them. His sisters will ooooh and ahhhh at first, then growing tired of it, they will tell him that’s enough.
In that way, he learns boundaries just as naturally as anyone else does.
In many ways Wil is like any typical peer. When he is misbehaving, that misbehavior should be commented on and corrected. When he’s getting annoying by repeating an action over and over, he should be told, ok, dude, that was cool at first but now that’s enough.
Sounds simple, right? So why doesn’t it happen? Wil acts younger in many ways, so it’s easy to treat him younger. Wil is very sweet, he loves unconditionally, so his friends don’t want to hurt his feelings. All of those reasons are completely understandable. Back when I was that age, I would have done the same thing. That is also what makes these situations excellent learning opportunities. Just this morning Wil gave me a hug and started messing with my hair. I pulled out of his hug, looked at him and said, “Wil, I love your hugs. But please do not mess with my hair, or anyone’s hair. People don’t like that.”
“Ok, Mom.” He stopped messing with my hair and gave me another hug. He will likely mess with my hair again on another occasion, when he is feeling feisty. I will again say the same thing in the same way. Eventually he will stop doing it. It can take multiple reminders before he decides to respect those boundaries. Sometimes it takes just one. But the important point is the boundaries need to be set.
Wil’s Connect friends are learning how to set boundaries with Wil and Wil is learning how to respect their boundaries. What it comes down to is mutual respect amongst peers, no matter what the similarities or differences are among them. This Connect program carries with it the essential life skills of working with varying abilities and personalities with care, firmness, kindness and respect. And this crew is proving what a great time you can have doing just that.
“Come on, you have your ear protectors on. It will be fun. Remember you wanted to go to the movies?”
The three of us stood there, Katherine Elizabeth and myself, juggling popcorn buckets and drink cups, in the hallway just outside the entrance to the room where our movie would be playing. Wil sat on the floor, smack dab in the center of the entrance. We had made it this far with very few signs of resistance, then plop! He wasn’t going in.
Looking back, there were a few small red flags. When I ordered popcorn, Wil said he didn’t want any <red flag>. I ordered him a small bucket knowing he would change his mind. When it came time to fill up his drink cup he perked up. He reached up to press the button of his drink of choice, slid his cup under the fountain and filled it to the top. He was one happy guy holding his cup walking down the hallway <red flag down!>. All four of us walked down the hallway with our treats, until Wil came to an abrupt halt just as we were about to enter the room. Plopped on the ground. And here we were.
“Wil if you aren’t going in, can you at least scoot to the side so people don’t have to walk around you to get into the movie?” A few kids that sat on the couch across from the entryway were staring at us. It’s always strange to be stared at. But I think it’s a good thing. This is our normal. Everyone has their own version of it, and the more we see other forms of normal, the less we fear them.
Wil scooted across the floor away from the entrance.
“Great, job, Buddy. So what is going on here? It’s not that loud in there. And you wanted to see the movie. So can you help me understand?” I received no response, though I really didn’t expect one at this point.
“It’s going to be a funny movie. Hey, we might even laugh til we wet our pants. How about that!” He looked up at me, with the faintest smile like he really wanted to laugh, then put his head back down. He wasn’t ready to be that open yet.
“Is it the popcorn? You don’t have to eat it.”
The previews started rolling and Katherine wanted to go in to watch them. “Mom, I can carry in Wil’s popcorn and pop.”
“Thanks honey.” Katherine gave a big bear hug around both her and Wil’s popcorn buckets with drinks in each hand and made her way into the theater. I thought of all the times the girls need to be patient. Katherine, Elizabeth and I all need to work as a team. While Katherine took in our supplies, Elizabeth stayed out with me to help encourage Wil into theater. This is our normal. People were streaming by us into the theater. Wil remained un-phased by the traffic and the boys staring on the couch.
Elizabeth worked on convincing Wil to enter the theater by asking more questions with very little response. For whatever reason, Wil resists piggyback rides from any of us except Elizabeth, so she pulled out the big guns, “Wil do you want a piggyback ride?” This is not so easy anymore with Wil weighing 104 pounds. He stood up and Elizabeth gave him a ride into the theater. Once he was in the theater, it was like he crossed a mental barrier as much as a physical one. He laughed as he reclined his seat. He asked to hold his own popcorn and placed his drink in the cup holder. And, as promised, we did laugh during the movie, but thankfully evaded any pant-wetting.
The previous week when Wil and I went to the same theater for a Down Syndrome Support Team event to watch Frozen 2, there were multiple other kids with Down syndrome who also decided that they did not want to enter the room where the movie was being shown. My guess is they were full of excitement to see Frozen 2, but when at the threshold, they found some part of the experience overwhelming. Be it a new room, anticipation of the event, concern of loud noises in a populated room or experiencing the unknown. Without the verbal communication skills to express those emotions, the physical communication is expressed as coming to a complete stop as to stop what is happening. On this particular occasion, Wil entered the theater without incident on that day, but I fully understood what was happening with the kids stopped at the entrance, as did everyone else in our Down Syndrome Support Team. There was no staring with the wonder of what was happening. This crowd of parents and siblings have all had been there, done that. This is our normal.
When Wil was very young, we were part of a playgroup. Wil’s favorite pastime was to find the door and escape as quickly as he could. I had to keep an eagle eye on him or he would be gone. I had to leave the twins with another mom and chase Wil down the hall again and again. He was the only one who did that with very few exceptions. Most of the kids were content at that age to play together or with all of the toys in the room, or if upset, sit down crying. But not Wil. His intent was to escape at any chance he could find.
Then I started hosting Down Syndrome Support Team play dates. 90% of the moms there spent the majority of their time with the same eagle eye, because their kids first priority was to exit the door. As challenging as it was, it was all of our normal.
Katherine, Elizabeth and I recently went shopping with Wil. We all know that our time is limited when shopping with him as he will run off or take a seat in the middle of the store when he is tired. We watch for the cues. It’s a team effort. We went to one store and I took him for a walk while the girls shopped and tried on outfits. Wil and I would circle back around to where the girls were shopping so I could see what they liked, or answer a question, then we’d circle around again. We made it through that store without incident. Then onto one other store. We tried the same tactic but I could tell Wil was falling apart. He started running and taking off. I saw a friend, Julie, shopping with her daughter. I waved and said hello as I followed the top of Wil’s head through the aisles of clothes.
She said, “How are you doing?”
“You know, just chasing Wil as per usual!” Julie knows Wil, has 4 kids of her own, and is a teacher, so no explaining was necessary. She nodded her head and smiled.
Following Wil, I ran into Elizabeth. I told the girls we had limited time. Elizabeth said that was fine, she didn’t see anything she liked anyway and was ready to go. We walked together, following Wil, to give Katherine some extra shopping time. For whatever reason, during Wil’s running he decided he wanted a vest. A $250 North Face vest. He pulled it off the rack to show it to me. I agreed it was really cool, because it was. But he was not getting a $250 vest as cool and well made as it was. He was not happy with that and decided to run around the store again. When he gets like this, I prefer he stay on the move, because if he drops on the floor, it’s really hard to get him back up again. The flip side is, he can easily decide to run out the door.
Elizabeth and I both looked at each other and telepathically exchanged it was time to go. Elizabeth said, “I’ll text Katherine to meet us at the car.”
I told Wil we were leaving and he made a sprint to the door. I put my arm around his shoulders and slowed him to a walk.
“Why your arm on me mom?”
“Because we are headed to the parking lot and we need to be safe.”
“So I’m not flat like a pancake.”
We made it to the car, then off to lunch. It was time for us all to sit in one place and enjoy some time together, which is exactly what we did.
Elizabeth came home from school one day and shared with me that her gym teacher, Mrs. April Stewart sat down with her and a few other friends. Elizabeth said there was some downtime in the class and Mrs. Stewart shared some stories about her sister with Down syndrome. Elizabeth said they laughed about the similarities between Mrs. Stewart’s sister and Elizabeth’s brother. How they could be absolutely unmoving and headstrong, but also openly and unconditionally loving. Elizabeth told me how special these conversations are to her. She said you really can’t understand what it’s like to have a brother with Down syndrome and it’s hard to explain. But Mrs. Stewart really understands. She said that she also likes the others in the group to hear these stories so they can understand, too. Elizabeth said sometimes Mrs. Stewarts gets tears in her eyes talking about her sister. She knows she really misses her. I had tears in my eyes too after Elizabeth shared this with me. (April and I met at a basketball meeting for our daughters, Elizabeth and Maggie. April saw Wil running around the gym and asked if he was my son. She then shared she had a sister with Down syndrome. We instantly became friends with our special chromosomal bond.)
In many ways I feel like we live in two different worlds; the typical world and the Down syndrome world. In our Down syndrome world, what Wil does is completely normal behavior. The stops at the entrance of the movie theater when it all feels too much. Or the sprints out the door when the shopping has gone on too long. But Wil has two typical sisters and we live in a typical world. So we must balance the two. Wherever we go we must be prepared. It’s is always a guessing game of how long Wil will last, and watching for the cues of his being tired. Because the typical world moves much faster, is a lot louder and has much less patience than the Down syndrome world. In the Down syndrome world we stop when we feel overwhelmed. Or we bolt because it’s much more appealing to run down an open hallway than to be overstimulated by the multitudes of activity crowded into one room. In the typical world we crave this activity, more is better. We crave distraction, and we must pack in as much as we can in a very short time.
It is a delicate dance to balance the two worlds. Katherine and Elizabeth understand this dance and they do it very well. I’m always amazed at how well they roll with it and we make it all work as a team. I’m thankful for the Mrs. Stewarts of this world. It’s of great importance for Katherine and Elizabeth to know others who balance these two worlds. These friends are our bridges–where our normals are broad and in-between; it is a place we can laugh and cry together with no explanation needed, because our understanding is whole on this well-traversed common ground.