Before my son Bobby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I knew very little about the chromosomal condition. Oh, I’d seen enough people to recognize the distinctive facial characteristics. I’d heard that people with the condition tend to be stubborn. And then I knew, of course, that people with Down syndrome aren’t very smart.
Right? We all know they’re not very smart.
Except when he was three years old, Bobby would sneak up on me in the kitchen, coming underfoot while I was cooking, until I finally had to kick him out for his own safety.
“Don’t set foot in here again,” I admonished him.
Thirty seconds later I looked around and found him sitting near the edge of the kitchen entryway, rear end on the opposite side of the threshold, waving his hands in the forbidden air of the kitchen, those Down-syndrome-creased eyes twinkling with delight.
Turns out not being able to speak clearly doesn’t mean not being able to understand or to communicate or to be wonderfully insubordinate.
A friend of mine tells the story of a Christmas buffet she attended with her son who shares Bobby’s Down syndrome diagnosis.
“Only two Christmas cookies,” she told him. “There’s plenty of healthier food.”
A few minutes later she watched from a distance as he put four cookies on a paper plate and then stacked a new plate on top with the allowed two cookies.
“He kept me on my toes for 53 years,” she laughingly says of her late son.
These examples are fun but they also serve to prove a larger point. There are one thousand ways to be smart and while people with Down syndrome often struggle with the traditional modes (think academics) to differing degrees, they still possess an adaptive intelligence that allows them to get what they want from the world, even or perhaps especially when their desires deviate from what traditional rules allow.
When Bobby was six, I sent him to a Bible study class. The volunteers did their best to engage him but he spent the time lying on the floor, tongue protruding against his lower lip, refusing to participate or even make eye contact. He eventually produced tears, prompting the well-meaning staff to move him into the playroom where he cheered considerably.
I found him there after church, sitting upright, tongue tucked into his mouth, playing happily.
“He’s taking advantage of you,” I laughed. “He didn’t want to pay attention so he pretended he wasn’t able to.”
Bobby regularly uses his disability as an excuse not to work hard, a characteristic which can be frustratingly manipulative, but it’s certainly not not-smart. I’ve seen the same strategy used by able-bodied people countless times in group assignments and corporate America work teams.
Make no mistake, while language doesn’t come easily for Bobby, he has little trouble communicating his likes and dislikes. While he doesn’t understand the complexity of his own Down syndrome diagnosis, he’s learned that affecting some of the stereotypical behaviors gets him out of work he doesn’t want to do. While much of the world dismisses him as “not-smart,” he, in turn, outsmarts those around him every single day. He definitely keeps me on my toes.