The fact that Luke has Down syndrome is not a big deal in our house. Our older son doesn’t see him more than a cute “baby,” although Luke is 20 months old. He’s a little below average size wise than typical for his age and he’s not walking yet, but the differences are not great because there is no one close to his age to compare him to.
But the differences are more apparent when we are in Luke’s 18-24 month preschool, a mommy and me class that meets weekly for an hour. He is the only one with Down syndrome, and in fact, every other child in his class is “typical.” This means that he is the only one who is not walking, his fine motor may not be as developed as they do their arts and crafts, and he may not be as verbal as the other children. But he loves circle time, is totally engaged during story time and singing. And even though he either has to crawl places or I have to carry him around, he enjoys engaging in activities and play, evidenced by the photo above!
Most of the moms are welcoming. I haven’t had a chance yet to talk intensively about why Luke often has his mouth open and can’t walk yet but that he will. But most of them treat me like any other mom and treat Luke like any other child in class, which is exactly what I had hoped for.
Now the concept of inclusion means different things to different people, and to many, it is just a way of life- going on with their family life with no major adjustments, signing their child up for community events along with typical peers, etc. A common formal definition refers to having a child in the general Ed classroom at school. For some children, this is a great environment because they tend to have better peers to model behavior after versus those in a self-contained special education class. The argument being that a child with Down syndrome shouldn’t be the one setting the example in the classroom, that they need typical peers to model after and motivate them to push themselves skills and learning wise. The other children in the class also benefit from immersive sensitivity training, which tends to lead to less bullying, and more open acceptance of differences. I have also heard that children learn better if they explain lessons to others, reinforcing what they have themselves learned.
I wish we would see more of this model, although some school districts around us have become very test focused and adopted an individual differentiation model, which typically includes clustering like minded together to more cost effectively advance the curriculum at a quicker pace. But I think they lose out teaching the children many life lessons by using this approach. I hear our school district does a good job catering to both special needs (and is open to inclusion) as well as gifted education. Seeing that our older child is highly gifted (which presents its own challenges), I am very interested in seeing how they manage both groups in the same classroom, if they truly are supportive of inclusion, which I am hoping they are.
Young children in daycare can also benefit from an inclusive setting if done properly. I met a one year old that started to walk shortly after moving up to the toddler room, and his parents believe it was because he had typical peers to motivate him to get moving! The parents were anxious at first, but their son surprised them with how well he did, which goes to show you how much a child can accomplish if given the opportunity.
But an inclusive setting is sometimes not the best fit for all children with Down syndrome as I’ve talked with some parents that have felt it was better to be in a self-contained classroom for their child. I believe that parents know their child the best, and they should not be judged for doing what they believe is best for their child. Their children might be dual diagnosis, have sensory or behavior issues or other reasons that their parents have that make them feel it is the best choice for their child. So although many in our community push for inclusion, it’s important for us not to make others feel inadequate for their parenting choices that they feel is best.
Even though it is too early to tell, we are hoping that Luke will be a good candidate for inclusion because we want him to be as independent as possible and have many options so that he can have many options when he grows up, whether it be to get a high school diploma (versus certification), go to college, get a job, get married, live independently, whatever his heart desires. I want him to be able to have the skills and confidence to at least try.
And these days, it is becoming more common to have college programs for our children. It only makes sense to me, as I think that many families and people with Down syndrome want this. I heard that a major cause of depression is when their typical peers move away to attend college, which is understandable as they probably feel like they are missing out on a huge milestone in life. So from what I have read, if you want your child with Down syndrome to attend college, they will be more successful if they are independent in an inclusive setting as much as possible. So that’s why Luke went straight to baby led weaning and skipped purees and why we looked for very early childhood classes when his developmental therapist suggested we get him in those kind of classes so that he knows what to expect when he transitions from early intervention to early childhood when he turns 3. And the concept of inclusion will contribute throughout our lives.
So even if your child isn’t in an inclusive setting in school, there are plenty of opportunities to engage your child into an inclusive setting. That could include buddy sports, gymnastics classes, park district programs, religious institutions (whether it be church, synagogue, temple, etc.) and even going to events, restaurants, errands, etc. I believe the more your child is out in society, engaging with others, the easier it will be for your child in the future. And by simply involving your child in these activities, your actions are advocating for your child and helping others get educated on what children with Down syndrome can really do, which I like to think is pretty much anything they put their mind to!