Human beings categorize. We place people into groups - those familiar to us and those who differ - and often feel uncomfortable when we encounter someone who is different.
My work with young children includes helping them to expand their zone of comfort with others, so that they empathize with and include people who seem different. (This work doesn’t end with children, though. It’s the work of a lifetime, and I continue to face my own reactions to “otherness” as I strive to accept and respect all human beings. It’s not always easy).
To typically developing children, people with intellectual disabilities can seem different. When they meet someone with Down Syndrome, for example, they may feel curious or uncomfortable or scared, and may exclude them or speak and act in unkind ways.
So how do we get our children to recognize those who act and think differently, and perhaps look different as well, as fellow travelers with rights, dreams, strengths, weaknesses, and a whole range of human emotions?
The first step is talking about it. We know that in order to counter racial bias in young children, we need to talk about race (see Make Race Explicit). Similarly, we need to talk about Down Syndrome or other intellectual differences.
You can say something like: “Lily looks a little different from a typical child. She has Down Syndrome, so she’s shorter, and has almond shaped eyes. She also thinks a little differently and may not learn things or do things as quickly as you.”
Then make sure to note similarities: “But guess what? She loves cupcakes, just like you do! And she loves to dance and swing on the swings, too.”
Whether or not you know someone with Down Syndrome, some terrific books are available that will spark conversation and help your child become more comfortable and inclusive. Here are three I particularly like:
My Friend Isabelle
My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson, illustrated by Bryan Gough. This lovely book chronicles the friendship between a typically developing child and his friend, Isabelle, who has Down Syndrome. They’re different, “I run fast, Isabelle takes her time. I know a lot of words. Isabelle’s words are sometimes hard to understand.” Yet they can do many things together and share a friendship just like any other.
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Pam Devito. In this picture book, a young girl awaiting the arrival of her new sibling anticipates all the things they’ll do together. When they find out that the baby has Down Syndrome, she repeats each of the activities that she hoped they would share, and learns that her little brother will be able to do all of them.
Where’s Chimpy? by Berniece Rabe with photographs by Diane Schmidt. In this book, a young girl with Down Syndrome can’t find her stuffed monkey when she’s ready for bed. She and her dad revisit the places around their home where she played that day, looking for Chimpy. You can tell from the photos that this book was written in the 80’s, but no matter. It’s a sweet portrayal of a Down Syndrome kid who plays just like any other child.