Of Mice and Squirrels – Defying Categories

“Look at me, Mom.” Wil held a sandwich close to his mouth and nibbled bit-by-bit.

“Look at you. Such a cute, little mouse.”

“Ugh, Mom, no. I’m a cute, little squirrel,” he said emphatically, then rolled his eyes upward. Wil is an expert at merging the aspects of childhood with the antics of teenage-hood.

Wil’s voice has grown deeper, there is the faintest hint of peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and he has a huge crush on Luke Bryan’s wife, Caroline (ask Wil what he wants to be when he grows up and he’ll answer, “married”). Wil has a mean left-handed golf swing, he knows every word to no less than 100 songs (99% of which are country), and he gives a hug that melts the grumpiest heart. 

Wil recently ditched watching his favorite show, Doc McStuffins. “It’s a baby show, Mom.” Yet if Sesame Street is playing on PBS, he stops in his tracks for Elmo. It’s the music that moves him, no matter the age it’s intended for. Play anything from Hairspray to FrozenHigh School Musical to Sing, and you’ve got his attention.

I’ve been asked on many occasions what “mental age” Wil is. I think it’s a way for people to understand his abilities. But it’s not a question I can answer. Wil’s interests and skills are much too broad to categorize him under a singular mental age. To understand Wil is to understand his individual interests and skills. And even those could change tomorrow. Except country music — that lives in his soul.

In our Down Syndrome Support Team, we parents share insights on our children’s learning styles in reading, math, and social studies. We exchange stories on their sports, hobbies, and friends. We laugh and cry over the challenges of puberty. Topics most parents discuss. However, many of our stories are elongated and can be quite in-depth. What works today may very well not work tomorrow. There may be a stand-still in progress for what seems like an eternity, then one ordinary day the floodgates of progress fly open. In our world, no day is ever ordinary. Every day holds a surprise gift waiting to be hand-delivered. We know the gift is coming, the surprise is in not knowing exactly how or when. 

Each of our children cross the bridge to a milestone on their own timeline and in their own way. Some bridges have a few extra planks built-in, others circle back to wind forward, and a few crisscross with one another. It’s nearly impossible to speak of our children in linear terms, nor do we want to. I find it highly ironic how often our children are categorized when they defy the boundaries of most any category they are placed in. 

I would know. Just this morning I had mistaken a cute, little squirrel for a mouse. And so life grows…

1% by 1%

Last night, there was a story on the news about a young man with Down syndrome training for a full ironman. Yes, a FULL! I fanned my hands in front of my eyes. Just freaking WOW!

His motto was 1%. Every day do 1% better than the previous day. That’s something we can all commit to. A very smart and dedicated man.It’s a feel good story for sure. And it’s a barrier breaker. It’s likely getting shared all over, as it should be. These stories are powerful not only for individuals with Down syndrome, but for all of us. Who knows who just needed that 1% nudge and decided to take it after this story.

I love these front stage stories. But as a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I also want to pull back the curtain. I want to talk to his parents. Beyond the typical questions that are asked. This is how they go: We were very concerned that my child had Ds. But what a blessing! Look what he/she can do now. These are success stories, and we can relate. I know I can.

But I want to go deeper. What is the day to day like? In many ways, our kids need some support. So in giving Wil independence, he’s not always aware of dangers. How did his parents give their son independence? How did that look over time? When did they push? When did they step back? Who put the Ironman idea in his head? Did he discover it? How was he made aware of it? Was it a fitness progression over time? That is the 1% I want. What were the 1%’s each day that added up to this place for your son?

I’m not asking because I want Wil to do an Ironman. If he wants to, more power to him. But my question is more 1%. I want to know the day to day for Wil to reach the highest level of independence he is capable of. I want to know the ideas to open him up to that. I want to know the parts they opened for their son to discover on his own. All the pieces that add up to the whole, whatever that whole may be.

Last night as Matt and I watched this show, Wil was out in the back field collecting sticks. He got cold, so came in grabbed a hat then dug through the glove bin. He picked out one glove and one mitten: one fit the right hand, one fit the left. No time to find a match, there were sticks to be collected. He flew out the back door, grabbed his wagon and pulled it up to the sticks he had piled. He hefted up one after another, stacked them across the top of the wagon (they were too long to fit in the wagon). Then he pulled his wagon down the hill to the fire pit, stopping a few times to retrieve a large stick that would slide off the pile.

I didn’t want to interrupt his busy work, but I also wanted to know where he was. So I went to our master bathroom window, that has a view of where the firepit is. I watched as Wil carefully unloaded each stick into the pit. Some weren’t quite right, so he put them back in the wagon. I yelled out “Good job!” from the window.

“Oh, hi mom! Look, we can have a fire!” Then he marched back up the hill with the remnant sticks and piled them all up on our back porch. I’m not sure of their intentions as they are still there today.

Wil walked in the house, nose pink and declared, “It is time for a 4-wheeler ride now, Mom.” I was nice and snug inside. It was a grey day and dusk. I really didn’t want to go on a 4-wheeler ride. I wanted to get under a blanket on the couch. But that wasn’t happening. I’m so thankful how active Wil is and I want to keep it that way. I don’t want him to get lulled by the couch. Activity for Wil is incredibly important for his health. He has low muscle tone and low thyroid, and his independent activity keeps him fit and energized. So I wasn’t going to put the stop sign on the 4-wheeler ride. Out we went. We zipped around the back field, then up and down the hill about 1,000 times in front of our house. Oh that fresh air! It woke me up, and I felt vibrant. Wil yelled out, “Giddyup Yeehaw!” every time we sped down the hill.

Wil picking up sticks is so much more than that. It’s 1% toward whatever goals he wants to achieve in life. But he needs my support. He needs the people behind the curtain. Every 1% adds up to the whole. It’s so much more than a feel good story; it’s about adding up the 1%’s. Next time you see an inspiring story like this, take a moment to look behind the curtain. To wonder what it took to get to that place. It’s more than an inspiring story, it’s about learning. It’s about growing 1% better every day. And when you do that for someone else, you do it for yourself too. It’s about us ALL being better.