Overwhelmed: Discovering a New Landscape with Down Syndrome

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.

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A Breath of Fresh Air at the Special Olympics

When you go to a Special Olympics event, there are some participants who talk to themselves, there are some participants who decide they are done and sit right down on the spot, there are some participants who decide to break out in song, there are some participants who spin in circles, there are some participants who hold things for comfort, there are some participants that go around talking to everyone they see, and the list goes on.  And there is always a volunteer to support them.

Most of these participants live in a world not made for them. They are constantly learning to function in that world. This takes a lot of work on a daily basis for both them and their caregivers. The Special Olympics and other such events for our kids is a breath of fresh air. Our kids have the opportunity to learn, grow, showcase their talents, all while being exactly who they are. To an outsider looking in, this scene may look strange, but to us it’s downright refreshing. Everyone “gets it.” We get to take a step back, to not always be on guard of where our kids may run off to, when they may shut down, or how they may fall apart. Our kids can be themselves without judgement and without reservation in a world designed for them to do just that.

We  the Special Olympics!!
#SOMI

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Hula Hoop With Me: How friends with Down syndrome put a positive spin on our lives

Yesterday evening, when I left for work Wil’s comforter was still in the wash machine. I told him I’d put a different one on his bed. As I fanned it out over his bed, before it had even fully settled, Wil jumped up and landed spread eagle across the comforter on his bed. He closed his eyes, smiled and uttered an, “Ahhhhh.”

I’m not a scientist. I’m not a psychologist. But I do know one thing. Spending time with people with Down syndrome sure brings out those feel good feelings we are all looking for.

And it’s a lasting happiness. Each time I see that comforter fan in the air and Wil jump up upon it and live his simple joy out loud, I’m lifted a little higher. It may be simple, but it is no less powerful. I can do today in a better way. I truly believe a positive biochemical change happens in us spending time with people with Down syndrome. Our instinctual feel good hormones are released naturally, without the aid of substances.

I have a vision — a vision of a large gym room. Wil is there. Friends with Down syndrome are there. They are jumping rope. Twirling with hula hoops. Shooting baskets. Some basketballs “swooosh” through the basket while others bounce off the backboard. Wil is attempting with all his heart to keep the hula hoop around his hips. It continues to fall to the floor. He laughs, picks it up, and tries again. A small group of “typical” individuals who are struggling in life walk in. They are desperately seeking happiness. They may be overly competitive. Have social anxiety. Low level energy. One grabs a hula hoop. Another picks up a jump rope. And some others gather to shoot a baskets. The social anxiety kicks in. They can’t hula hoop. They haven’t jumped rope in years. The intensely competitive feel their juices flowing. I’ll hit every one of these and drown these suckers. Wil urges the woman next to him to try the hula hoop. His laughter as the hoop falls and he picks it up again is contagious. She tries. Hers falls. She picks it up again. She still feels self-conscious. Others are watching. But Wil encourages her. She tries. She finds the trying is more fun. She forgets others are watching for brief seconds at a time. This is the most fun she has had in years. 

Our competitive friend shoots and sinks every basket. Another friend with Down syndrome congratulates him. He starts to talk to him. Our competitive friend can’t quite understand. He nods his head like he does understand. Who has time for this? He’s got things to do. But does he? The two guys shoot more baskets together. They start to talk again. Our competitive friend really has to listen this time. He’s been asked a question. He has to talk a little slower. They get into conversation. They shoot more baskets. Though their success rate differs, they both find each other congratulating or encouraging another effort. But now it’s time to go. Our competitive friend doesn’t know what just happened, but somehow, he feels like he just took in a huge breath of fresh air. And he hasn’t done that for a long, long time.

They meet again in the gym the next day. Our friends with Down syndrome yell out the visitors names and run up for high-fives, fist-bumps and hugs like long-time friends though they have only met the day before. They pick up the hula-hoops, jump ropes and basketballs. They pick up right where they left off, but somehow feel years lighter than only a day before.

They come back again the next day. And the next. And the next. They start to make real friends. They get better at shooting baskets, jumping rope and hula hooping. Those that made their first full twirl before the hoop fell are congratulated just as enthusiastically as those who just hit their 20th. What is recognized is doing better than the day you did before. Each and every day, big enthusiastic greetings are the norm. The talking is slower, the listening needs to be more intense. While this may have first resulted in impatience in our visiting friend’s “outside” life, they begin to see how gratifying slowing down is. How taking time to listen is actually a “feel good” mechanism. Go figure.

Our visiting friends find themselves bringing some of these attributes to their life outside of the gym. They greet others more enthusiastically. Genuinely. They listen. Like really listen. They’ve slowed their roll some, but notice they actually have made stronger connections. Their accomplishments take on a different meaning. They are more fulfilled for the connections made. In that, they are able to honor their own achievements as well as others. 

I can be any of those people that walk in the gym. I can get overly competitive. I can get anxious about what others will think. Heck, even sharing this post I can hear you saying, “What kind of utopian world does she live in thinking this gym vision would have any impact?” 

But here’s the thing, I walk into that gym every single day. And thankfully I also come back the next day. And the next. And the next. I need the reminders the gym life has to offer. Because the outside world does everything it can to take me away from what is important. How amazing is it that I am greeted enthusiastically every single morning? This fact alone makes me want to greet others the same way. Slowing down is a toughy for me. But my goodness, how incredibly rewarding that is once you do it. To listen, to offer your best self, whatever that looks like for you. Not in comparison to another. And all the while, finding a way to have fun doing it.

Finding yourself in the present moment: When you can’t press time on a child with Down syndrome

I meditate. 10 minutes a day. With Headspace. I get to choose when and where I meditate. My chosen 10 minutes of living in the present. It is bliss. It is zen. It is being. It is da bomb. 

But being put in the present moment when it’s not my chosen 10 minutes? Is there a fast-forward button on this present moment thing?

Last night Matt and I both got home about 7pm. Wil had two sheets of homework. Just one sheet, depending on Wil’s mood, can take hours or minutes. Currently Wil is congested. So he’s tired. Hours, rather than minutes, was the likely scenario. We usually start homework about 4:30 so Wil can take multiple breaks, if needed. Knowing I’d be home later, I asked Katherine and Elizabeth to work on one of the sheets with him, giving him breaks, and I’d complete the rest with him when I got home. Katherine and Elizabeth are very good at doing homework with Wil, and he enjoys his big sisters’ help. But even they could only elicit 3 answers of the 25 questions from Wil. 

In the end, pulling out all the silliness, encouragement and creativity we could muster, 7 questions were answered of the 25. The other sheet remained completely blank. Wil went to bed and immediately fell asleep. I did the same. It was exhausting for all of us. 

You can’t press time on Wil. The minute he senses force, he responds with like force. Taking breaks is a necessity. A brief break can save hours. He requires encouragement. Silliness always wins. Creativity a must. Some days are a breeze, and other days, like last night, are stumpers. 

On school mornings, I wake Wil up knowing it will take him 10 minutes to get out of bed. He requires a hug first. Then another hug. And another. And another. Then tickles and lots of giggles. Then we decide on what is for breakfast. Eating breakfast is a hot topic. He loves to eat, and it’s usually leftovers from dinner or a sandwich. He’s not into cereal. After breakfast, brushing his teeth is another process. He is a sensory kid. This too requires patience, silliness and creativity. Some days, brushing teeth is left until after school because of the time it can take. 

All of these moments with Wil require me to be present. If I press time on him, then it’s like taking 2 leaps back. Though I can predict these times with a fair amount of accuracy, they are not my chosen times to be in the present. This can be admittedly frustrating. When time feels too short to be in the present moment. Can we just move this show along already? 

At this point in my life, I don’t believe that being in the present moment is filled with bliss. That is, if it’s not at a time of our choosing. When I really want to press time on Wil, but know I can not, I have to find my silliness. I have to find my creativity. I have to find another well of patience. Some days I do better than others. When I reach a point of losing my cool, I get more creative. I get sillier. And my well deepens even more. So while the present moment is not what I’d call bliss, I’m still deeply grateful for my growth in it. Because I can’t press time on Wil, the present moment presses on me to grow. Maybe that is the lesson of the present moment–growth and gratitude. At least that is the theory I’m going with right now. And I’ve got about a million morning hugs to back that theory up. 

Living a Purposeful Life: Our Friends with Special Needs As Our Greatest Teachers

I see a lot of stressed unhappy people out there. And I wonder, how can we change that? I mean, we all have different battles to fight. And we all have different things that make us happy and sad. The online self-help bookshelves at Amazon have multiple aisles. There are therapists and any drug you can name that advertise relief.

With so many tools available, why do so many seem as stressed as ever? It’s like a competition to see who is busier. I overhead a conversation waiting in the check-out line at a grocery store. Two ladies ran into each other, and soon they were competing over who had less sleep. Is that really a competition you want to win? 

There is a difference between being purposeful and being busy. It seems that being busy is supposed to win us a gold star. But how purposeful are we really in our busyness? Are we missing the point as we run in circles?


I don’t have the answers, but it sure hurts to see so many people hurting. We seem busier but unhappier. I don’t believe there are any secrets but I do believe there are methods to being happier in life. And it does involve making some changes….in who you talk to.

I will tell you, every time I go to a special needs event I am filled up. Not just by the participants, but also those doing the volunteering. Now, I’m being very general here because everyone is an individual; but when you are talking and working with someone with special needs, for the most part, their learning style doesn’t so easily fit the norm. Most of us typical folks adapt even if it isn’t our preferred way of learning. But you can’t tell a child with Down syndrome to hurry up when they don’t want to. It ain’t gonna happen. You can’t talk to a child with autism in generalities, you won’t get through or you will have someone very upset on your hands. You have to slow down and think through what you are going to say. You can’t just force things. You have to look at things from their perspective. Now, that may sound stressful to some of you, and at times it can be. But here’s the secret…it gets you out of your own stressful world that continuously spins around in your head. It forces you to think above all that noise on a different plane. To broaden your perspective and throw in a dose of compassion. And even though you may have some very big things on your plate, these experiences have the power make them shift to a better place in your mind. 

At a recent Special Olympics function, I was sitting on the side of a hill with a few of the athletes. I struck up a conversation with two of the gentleman. One of them works at a nursing home. He stutters a bit, but that did not slow down his enthusiasm in explaining how he cleans the floors, makes the beds, takes care of general room clean-up. I barely needed to ask a question before he was answering it. I was thoroughly enjoying our conversation. I actually found myself almost to tears. I’m sure it was part happiness seeing this young man thrive as Wil will be a young adult in 6 years. But, mostly I think it was the pure joy I felt as a child. Sitting on a grassy hill in the summer sun and having an enthusiastic conversation. It was so refreshing. He wasn’t telling me how stressed he was to clean the floors, or how some coworker was an absolute jerk, or how he hadn’t slept in 3 days. He was a man grateful for his daily life and couldn’t wait to tell me all about it. I want to be more like him. Sorry, ladies competing in the grocery store aisle, my new friend is the real winner. 

So many of us are given more cognitive abilities than this man, and yet we use most of our time stressed to the hilt. I’m not saying that we do not have very important things to attend to. But what I am saying is that it’s ok to take a step back. To take a good look to be sure what we are doing has purpose to it. To find a purpose for growth and a broader perspective, and in some cases, great enthusiasm.

The next time I get stressed, or overwhelm myself, I’m going to bring myself back to the conversation on the grassy hill. Our friends with special needs may need our help to achieve certain goals, but we need their help just as much, if not more, to remember what a purposeful life is meant to be.