This week I sent a video of my daughter Maybelle to a friend who recently had a child with Down syndrome. In this video, Maybelle—who’s almost three—is reading word cards, signing and saying the words she sees. My friend responded, “That’s pretty impressive. Is that uniquely Maybelle, or is there some sort of emerging sense that kids with Down syndrome read precociously?”
Of course I was delighted to answer this question for my friend, and I’ll answer it for you: Kids with Down syndrome tend to be good visual learners, so they can often learn to read fairly early. (Downs Ed is a fabulous group in England that’s been leading the research on this.) Kids with Down syndrome may have difficulty speaking effectively, but they can often read quite well–ahead of grade level, etc–if they’re taught to read. This “if” is important, as illustrated by another conversation I had this week.
One of my best friends is an occupational therapist. She just started working with an eight-year-old who has Down syndrome and is in the life skills class at his public elementary school. The life skills class, for those who don’t know, is essentially the class for kids that the school system has decided can’t learn. It’s a segregated special education classroom where kids aren’t taught the kind of academic subject matter you’d learn in second grade; instead, they’re taught how to get dressed, how to sit quietly, how to interact with another human being. As an example of the kinds of academic challenges that are left out of life skills classes, this child is eight, and he can count to three. To three.
Maybelle is almost three years old, and she can count to ten, say the alphabet, and read more than 100 words. I share this with you and with other people in the world not because it’s “uniquely Maybelle.” She’s not a prodigy. She’s a child with Down syndrome who has been given the opportunity to achieve, and—like most of us in the world—when given an opportunity, she rises to meet it. I don’t mean to suggest that she, or anybody, will achieve every opportunity that’s presented, of course. But it’s rare for any of us to achieve without being provided with the space, the support, and the belief that make achievement possible.
Maybelle is one hell of a reader. I am incredibly fortunate to have friends who are speech therapists, early interventionists, and scholars of Down syndrome. These folks told me about high expectations and helped shatter my stereotypes about Down syndrome. I think about the eight-year-old that my friend is working with. His parents probably followed the advice of the authorities at the school, who perhaps haven’t been doing their jobs all that well and haven’t learned that full inclusion in typical classrooms is almost always recommended for kids with Down syndrome. I’ll bet good money that, if given the opportunity, this child would learn to count, to read, to perform fairly well in an inclusive classroom with his same-age peers. But if he isn’t provided with that opportunity, he isn’t going to achieve.
Thirty years ago educators believed it was impossible for people with Down syndrome to learn to read (click here if you want to hear some of my reflections on this). It’s long past time for our false beliefs and low expectations to be sad relics of an era we’ve moved beyond.
Update from Alison: I very quickly got feedback from several people about this post that has made me want to apologize and clarify. I’m sorry to imply that kids–any kids, with Down syndrome or not–should be performing in a certain way if they’re getting the “correct” opportunities. All kids are unique individuals, and their strengths and challenges are going to be specific to them. This of course has nothing to do with Down syndrome: some kids are going to be readers, some kids are going to be athletes, some are going to have artistic sensibilities, some are going to have the knack for fixing things that are broken, some are going to be beautifully attuned to other people’s emotions. Etc. And these strengths will emerge at various times in their lives. I know about one kid who really didn’t read at all until the Harry Potter books came out, and then–as a teenager–he learned to read, and loved to read.
I want us to live in a world with high expectations and lots of opportunities for all our kids. And I want us to appreciate our kids for their gifts, whatever they are, and whenever they emerge. You’re right to be skeptical of my assessment of the eight-year-old I haven’t met: a child’s ability to count, or speak, or read isn’t evidence of lack of opportunity. And it’s lack of opportunity that’s my concern, not the individual gifts and talents of any particular kid in the world.
Again, I apologize, and I appreciate the feedback!