I’m certified to teach CI (cognitive impairment) special education. CI includes Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21, also called mental retardation and developmentally disabled). I’ve taught many CI students. As a teen, I lived in and helped manage a group home for developmentally disabled adults. There are myths about Down Syndrome that need dispelling. I am going to do that, plus share caregiver tips.
Down Syndrome children are always happy. It sets my teeth on edge when people glibly say that. First, there is no “they.” There are individual children. A Down Syndrome child suffers sad feelings other kids do. Only it’s harder, because he lacks processing skills. The National Library of Medicine says Down Syndrome children have diminished communication skills, judgement, filtering, attention span and learning. She experiences frustration quicker and needs support and encouragement to navigate.
Down Syndrome children are stubborn. No, they just refuse to do things they don’t understand. It’s common sense self-preservation. You or I would act the same if we felt threatened. My friend John got on the same bus every morning. Each time was hard because he thought the bus might hurt him. Every day, I got on with him, greeted the driver and his friends, so he saw it was safe. A little reassurance works better than fighting it.
Down Syndrome people are more reliable. This is often true and it’s used against them. Employers may give Down Syndrome people menial jobs no one else wants. My student Bobby did janitorial work at a fast food restaurant. He asked me to teach him the cash register, which he mastered with flying colors. He was denied the job because he did such a good job cleaning toilets. Down Syndrome kids shouldn’t be made to do things they can’t, but they should be allowed to do what they can.
Down Syndrome children have good memories. Actually, they struggle with memory and what they remember seems savant-like. My friend Adrian could sing every Statler Brothers song, but had to be reminded daily to brush his teeth. It helps if you don’t set expectations too high. If she asks the same question over and over and forgets simple things, just keep patiently answering and reminding.
Down Syndrome children are lazy. No, they but they often have health issues–circulatory, skeletal, respiratory, digestive, muscular– that make exercise difficult. They tire easily. Game rules and competition confuse them. Easy, non-competitive activities are best: yoga, aqua therapy, aerobics, dance, basic calisthenics. We danced with colored scarves to classical music, played with a parachute and did simple Tai Chi. These are fun, non-threatening ways to develop coordination.
Down Syndrome children fear change. That’s true, but it’s not change that scares them as much as inconsistency. Ritual is essential. It comforts and build trust and confidence. My friend Ricky asked me to sing “Heartache” every blessed night. I hate country music. But I sang. You’d have thought from his smile he was hearing Bonnie Tyler herself. Best of all, he had fewer nightmares. Our evening routine was inviolate: dinner at 5:30 sharp (basic repeating weekly menu, no weird foods), exercise, story or TV, snack, wash up, bedtime and quiet at 9 pm.
Down Syndrome children are very loving. That’s no myth. Down Syndrome kids return any love you give, in double measure. They respond to affection, praise and simple predictable activities. Subbing in a special needs high school class on Valentine’s Day, I bought Valentines and a package of refrigerator heart cookies. I thought they might find in childish, but they loved it! I was the favorite sub that year.
My boys from the adult foster care home have all passed away now. I can’t hear “Heartache” or see a city bus without remembering those special people I was to call “friend.”