On my daughter’s first day of school, I dropped her off into her classroom. Right away, I noticed that she was seated next to a girl with Down syndrome. I kissed her goodbye, and I started to prepare myself for the questions that are inevitable. Thankfully, I had the day to think about it while she was at school.
How was I going to explain Down syndrome to her? Should I use medical terms? Do I make it short or long? Most importantly, how would I help her connect with this little girl who has so many thoughts and feelings just like her?
My daughter came home from school, and I couldn’t wait to hear all about what happened on her first day. I kept waiting for the moment that she might bring up the girl in her class with Down syndrome. My head had been spinning with different things to say, but I hadn’t come up with an answer that I thought would be just right. So I felt a sigh of relief when it didn’t come up that night.
The day did finally come when my daughter mentioned the girl who sat next to her.
She said, "Mom, there's something different about Erica." It was an accurate description I decided. My own daughter has a physical difference herself, so I felt a sense of relief that our talks about how people don't all look the same had been sinking in.
Then she asked, “Mom, how come Erica is hard to understand when she speaks?”
I wished that I had come up with a perfect answer by this time, but I just had to go with what was on my heart. “Erica has Down syndrome, honey.”
"What’s that, mom?"
“Well, do you notice how Erica is happy all the time and smiles a lot?”
"Yeah, she does. You’re right, mom."
“People with Down syndrome are filled with happiness. They don’t see the world the way that we do. They see the really good things in life, and it makes them smile.”
"That’s pretty cool, mom."
"You’re right! It is really cool. It’s so nice to be around people who are filled with so much happiness and joy."
I didn't know if my answer was enough. But as a mom of a child with special needs, I do understand that children with differences all want to be seen for who they are. They want to play with other children and to have conversations about their favorite television shows. What they want most is live as "normally" as possible. They need to know that they are more than just their difference.
My daughter didn’t talk much about Erica throughout the rest of the year. Once school was out for the summer, we started heading to the local pool. My daughter always found classmates to play with when we went, and she looked forward to that each time.
On one occasion she was extra insistent that I come see her friend from school. After gathering all of our pool supplies that we had camped out at the toddler area, I headed with her to the other side of the pool. “Mom, this is my friend, Erica.” I realized right away that it was Erica from her class.
Erica looked at me and said something that I couldn’t quite understand. “Mom, she said she likes mermaids.” Then I noticed the mermaid Erica was holding in her hand. “I can understand Erica really well, Mom,” my daughter said.
At that moment I realized that she had taken the time to get to know Erica as a person. She didn’t see her as different or weird or as a child with Down syndrome. Erica was her friend. She was another child who liked to play with mermaids -- just like her.