There’s Just Something in the Atmosphere

Over the years, I have found it less important how people approach Wil than how they have left an experience with Wil. Wil demands a shift of heart without demanding it at all.

I’ve been involved in our Down Syndrome Support Team’s annual Buddy Walk since Wil was 7 months old. Many walkers who attend this event are long-time attendees such as myself. And it is no surprise why. When new friends attend, a look of awe crosses their faces at the sheer uplifting feeling of it all. You may say it’s the music from the band, mixed with excitement from the silent auction, heightened with a sugar-high from the cotton candy. But I know it’s something far less tangible than that.

I do not know with what expectations or intentions people walk into our event, but I do know the feeling with which they walk out. And that they will come back again. There are no strangers at the Buddy Walk. Each and every participant is folded in like family no matter where they have come from or why they chose to attend. Come as you are and you are accepted as you are, no matter your level of acceptance. Though a welcome banner announces the entry, it is the atmosphere that invites you in. You may have no musical talent but pick up a guitar, the bongo drums or a tambourine and you are part of the band. You may have two left feet, but you will meet a favorite dance partner as soon as you step foot on the dance floor if you aren’t pulled onto it first. You may have been part of the Buddy Walk for years or just walked onto the scene, but you will be received with open arms and a mighty hug just the same. It’s just how our loved ones with Down syndrome roll. 

The Buddy Walk lives on in whoever has attended the event. But you needn’t have attended the Buddy Walk to know of the atmosphere with which I speak. It is our loved ones with Down syndrome who create this atmosphere and live their lives in it. And like any atmosphere, it knows no boundaries.

I’ve seen kindnesses emerge from a multitude of strangers upon entering the atmosphere Wil lives in. I have literally felt the shift in people. Not once or twice, but on a daily basis. Tight-lipped strangers visibly loosen – their eyes become softer, their shoulders relax and my personal favorite is seeing an unconscious smile spread across their faces. As they walk past us their smile holds on. You can’t smile on the outside without feeling it on the inside. 

I can try to teach a belief system about acceptance of our loved ones with Down syndrome until I’m blue in the face. But the atmosphere created by our loved ones with Down syndrome meets everyone exactly where they are, accepts them as they are, and gives rise to a new level of understanding without a single teacher at the lector. Our loved ones with Down syndrome demand nothing less of us without demanding it at all.

Steps to Independence

I walked Wil into his first day of camp, then I walked back to my car. I shut the car door and cried for 5 minutes straight.

I couldn’t stop seeing Wil’s face in my mind. His big, wide eyes looking up at me above his mask. I knew that look. He was trying to be brave. He was trying to do what I wanted him to do. He was trying to do what he wanted to do. To do camp by himself. But he was scared. The innocence and trust in his eyes is so pure. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Wil was all a bundle of joy on the drive to camp. Country music a-blaring, he was bouncing in his seat and yelling his songs out the window. No matter it was 19 degrees, the music in him was too big to be contained within the walls of the car. It needed to be released into the winter air.

He was most excited about his lunch. We stopped on the way to camp to pick up a Lunchable to pack along with the carrots, cheese, crackers and water bottle I packed at home. The Lunchable was a special treat – he chose the ham & cheese sub with the little Pringles packet and 2 Oreo cookies.

With weeks of virtual school, and now Christmas break, Wil’s mojo has slowly been declining. Wil is an energetic kid by nature, and I am very mindful of nurturing that energy. Wil has low thyroid, so it would not be hard for him to fall into sluggishness. For both physical and mental health reasons, it’s key to keep his energy high. And I know, personally, how physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.

For Christmas, Wil received a mini-trampoline and Luke Bryan CDs. I knew he’d love jumping around to his favorite country singer. I also bought one Luke Combs CD, because I knew Wil would want me to take turns with him jumping to music, and Wil has me about burned out on Luke Bryan! (Wil is agreeable to adding Luke Combs, Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton, Johnny Cash, Zac Brown and Kenny Chesney to his music selection on occasion). 

When I came across an email that the Saline Rec Center was having a winter camp, I read into it further. Then my heart sank when I read the age group was for kids ages 5 through 12. I knew Wil would not want to be with the 5-7 year old children, as he’s very much a teenager, but I also knew he’d enjoy the activities the 10-12 year old’s would be doing. As Wil is 13, I thought the camp director may make an exception. No hurt in asking, so I did. 

When I called the camp director and mentioned that I had a 13-year-old son with Down syndrome I’d be interested in signing up for the winter camp, her first questions surrounded Wil’s interests. This may sound routine, but whenever I mention Wil has Down syndrome, the first questions typically surround what his limitations are. Let that sink in a minute…when you are asked about your child, are the first questions about what they can’t do? 

Raising Wil, there are multiple micro intricacies like this that pop out in our daily lives. Many times, people are not being unkind, it’s truly a matter of not knowing. And you don’t know until you do know. I just happen to live in the know in this particular category. So when you meet people who are in this type of know, you don’t miss the cues, no matter how small. And the cues usually are small –which is what makes them so big.

The topic of Wil’s limitations never came up directly. In discussing who Wil was as a person, the conversation naturally unfolded into what his triggers were for certain behaviors and what extra help in certain areas he may need. The camp director determined that how the camp was structured would be a good fit for Wil, and described the group she would place him in (with 10-12 year olds). It also so happened that the staff member leading that group has an adult sister with autism. Though Down syndrome and autism are very different, there is a deeper understanding gained in growing up with a sibling with special needs. 

When I met the staff member leading Wil’s group at the camp, I knew right away he would be a good fit for Wil. Wil had a Master’s baseball hat on, and he said to Wil, “Ahh, the Masters! I love watching the Masters. So you play golf, Wil?”

“Uh huh,” Wil said. Wil looked around at the other kids that were playing ball. His eyes were wide and nervous, but he also wanted to join in the fun. The staff member got Wil settled and I asked him about his sister. 

“She’s doing great. She has her own agenda, you know?” I nodded. In his words were a whole world I knew. I didn’t know him, I didn’t know his sister, but I understood what lived under those words. There are pieces of this life that are difficult to articulate. They have to be lived to be truly understood. Even though each piece has its own personality, underneath it all the emotions are the same. And that’s where we met. It’s the same place I meet my friends in our Down syndrome support group. We don’t have to explain, thank goodness. Explaining takes too much energy and the words always fall flat. It’s an enormous comfort when you meet someone underneath the words. 

With the combination of the camp director and the leader of Wil’s group, I knew he was in good hands. It was time for me to go, and give Wil his first day at camp. I gave Wil a hug, said good-bye and walked back to my car. 

These are my first steps in opening Wil to greater independence. It’s a feeling I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to articulate accurately with words. But if you saw Wil’s eyes, you would know exactly what I mean without my saying a word.

A Darn Straight Day

“Mom, I worked hard today!” Wil shouted as he threw the car door open and took a seat right behind me. The school day had just ended. Elizabeth slid into the passenger seat and Katherine jumped in next to Wil.

“No way, Wil, not three days in a row.” I said.

“Yes!”

“Nope, not possible.”

“Yes!”

“Put it here, buddy. I’m proud of you.” I raised my hand over the front seat and Wil met it with a strong high-five. “Katherine, did you work hard today?”

“Hmm, sort of.” She gave Wil a sideways smile.

“What!” I rolled my eyes in mock disdain.

“Giiirl,” Wil pointed to her, “you work hard!”

“Elizabeth, did you work hard today?” I asked.

“I did, but I could have worked harder.”

“Darn straight!” Wil yelled out.

“Wil learned that from Ms. Kastel in a game they were playing.” Elizabeth said. “I think she changed one of the words.” We shared a smile.

Ms. Kastel was Wil’s 7th and now 8th grade social studies teacher. 7th grade was a particularly trying time for Wil, with a change in schools and an uptick in puberty. Ms. Kastel was cognizant of this and continually worked to find ways to connect with Wil. When she discovered Wil’s love for country music, she introduced him to one of her favorites, Johnny Cash. She bought the two matching t-shirts which Wil wears proudly. Wil also loves Pringles, so he and Ms. Kastel share a Pringles cheer for a job well done in class. Not surprisingly, social studies is now one of his favorite subjects.

On our drive home, Elizabeth filled me in on her day. Katherine added commentary on their shared classes. Wil listened to both of his sisters, then hollered out, “Mac ‘n’ cheese, Mom!”

“Mac ‘n’ cheese? You had it for lunch?”

“No, made mac ‘n’ cheese.” Wil mimicked stirring a pot. “With Victoria and Anna. My Connect friends.” (Connect friends are typically-developing juniors and seniors who are paired with students who have special needs.)

Oftentimes, Wil doesn’t offer much after school. He’s generally open at bedtime, when the house is quiet and there is time and space to share his thoughts. It can be challenging to create space between his sisters’ words on the drive home. We will often ask Wil questions to create the space for him. Though we typically get a “hmph” and shrug of the shoulders in reply.

When Wil stepped into the car that day, he threw the door wide open to his school experiences. I never know when or how a breakthrough in communication will arrive, but I know it when I hear it. On this day what busted down the gates was a build-up of three straight days of working hard, making mac ‘n’ cheese with Connect friends, a darn straight awesome social studies teacher, and hard-working (even if they tease they don’t), loving sisters who naturally show Wil how to create his own space. And that’s exactly what he did.