Friday, March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day … a day set aside to raise awareness about Down syndrome and to celebrate our friends and loved ones who are born with this genetic condition. There are over 400,000 people in the U.S. who have Down syndrome and they deserve to be celebrated but more than that, they deserve to be accepted and understood. If the general public could understand one thing about Down syndrome, I wish it would be this … the only difference between “typical” people and people with Down syndrome is just one tiny chromosome.
For the past six years, I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have special needs like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and many other diagnoses and conditions. The people with special needs who I know and love have taught me so many things and have changed my definition of “normal.” The over-arching thing they’ve taught me is that we all have special needs of one sort or another; we are all genetically predisposed to look a certain way, to behave a certain way, to learn a certain way. We each have our own unique brand of special needs … some people’s are just easier to recognize than others.
Two years ago at our summer camp, a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy (let’s call her Samantha – because I don’t have any students named Samantha) told our Artistic Director, Hayley Henderson, that she was “scared” of a girl in her class who has autism (let’s call her Alex, because I don’t have any female students named Alex). Samantha didn’t understand some of the ways Alex behaved and thought that Alex was being “mean” to her.
“You know how you have cerebral palsy and that keeps your legs from working the way they’re supposed to?” Hayley asked Samantha.
“Yes,” Samantha said. “But what does my cerebral palsy have to do with Alex acting weird and being mean to me?”
“Alex has a special need too, but it’s not one that you can see,” Hayley explained. “Your special need is in your legs but hers is in her brain and it affects the way she acts sometimes. She isn’t trying to be scary or weird and she doesn’t want you to think she’s mean. Her special need is called autism and it can make her act differently than you do sometimes. But besides that, she’s just like you.”
Samantha replied, “Okay, now I understand! I didn’t know people could have special needs in places besides their legs. I won’t be scared of her anymore … if she acts weird to me, I’ll know it’s because she has special needs!”
Jen Greenstreet, founder of Just Like You Films, has produced three documentary short films featuring children with cancer, burns and Down syndrome. Each film delivers the message that these exceptional children are “just like you.” In honor of World Down Syndrome Day, please take the time to watch this 13-minute video. Maybe you’ll even have your children watch it! What if thousands of people all over the world watched this little film and began to realize that every one of us is “just like you?” What would happen if we all realized that everyone deserves to be accepted, just the way they are? I’d like to find out … wouldn’t you?