Let’s Be Real: Talking to Children about Down Syndrome

We talk about Down syndrome quite often in our house. It pops up in interesting and the most random ways and we embrace it and go with the flow. It’s all about reading the audience, reading the room and being honest, in my opinion. This is especially true with kids.

We don’t hide Down syndrome or what it means or could mean for our kids and it seems our friends and loved ones have the same approach with their children. Most, if not all, of the kids that are close with Zach at least know that he has something called Down syndrome that may change the way he does things but not whether or not he can do all the same things as them. We explain that having Down syndrome -- and anything “special” like different-colored hair, being really great at different things, not being able to see, being autistic, etc, etc, etc.

Here’s how we talk to Zach, his sister, Addie, and their friends.

1. Let them lead.


We don’t usually throw out serious discussions without a question prompting it. Sometimes, Addie will ask about the National Down Syndrome Society events that I photograph. In the past, it came up because of Zach’s therapies or him going to a different school in previous years.

Wendy Zook Photography | Frederick Maryland photographer, Down syndrome awareness, DS awareness, talking about Down Syndrome

2. Let them end it.


Similarly, I believe that we should take our clues on when the conversation needs to be completed. No need to drag it out too long or take it too far.

3. Relate it to things that they know and understand.


I have found myself making pretty silly comparisons and I’m alright with that because I think our children “getting it” on their terms is what matters most. I’ve compared kids who have special needs or differences to My Little Ponies having different magic powers, colors and cutie marks.

Wendy Zook Photography | Frederick Maryland photographer, Down syndrome awareness, DS awareness, talking about Down Syndrome
Wendy Zook Photography | Frederick Maryland photographer, Down syndrome awareness, DS awareness, talking about Down Syndrome

4. If you see questions or cruelty, address them.


This is a case-by-case basis, but usually, if I see or hear questions about Zach or Down syndrome, I answer them on the spot (or give him a way to answer them), especially if I’m the only adult around. If I hear of any mean acts towards Zach, that becomes a conversation with the other person’s parents. It begins with the benefit of the doubt, plus kindness, plus ideas on how to create a better environment for everyone involved.

Wendy Zook Photography | Frederick Maryland photographer, Down syndrome awareness, DS awareness, talking about Down Syndrome

5. Encourage them to spread kindness.


Even more than we talk about Down syndrome or special needs, we talk about how important it is to be kind and to be a good friend. We’ve given Addie ideas on how to help friends who have not been treated well and what to do if she sees someone being mean to someone else. We’ve also talked about what she can say about Down syndrome or special needs. She’s an incredible ambassador for her brother.

Because we’ve been open and honest with our children and our friends have done the same with their children, I like to think that we’re making the world a little better for all of our kids. We’re teaching them open-mindedness, patience, advocacy and the beauty in differences.