I saw a photo recently that stopped me in my tracks, in the most joyous way possible. It was a picture of 17-month-old Asher Nash, nattily dressed, sitting on a sofa, and wearing a smile that was nearly bigger than he was. I thought, “That is one of the most expressive children I’ve ever seen!” The fact that he has Down syndrome was probably fourth or fifth on the list of features I noticed about Asher. And that’s just how his mom, Meagan, wants it. As Meagan Nash wrote on the Asher’s Down Right Perfect Facebook page, “Asher is an individual, just like everyone else. He has his own physical features, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and traits that make him unique. Down syndrome is only a piece of who he is. We will not write his future for him and neither will society. Yes, he may need a little extra time and attention to hit his milestones as he grows, but nothing will stop him!
We won't treat him any differently than his sister [who does not have Down syndrome], and we hope to expect the same from everyone he meets along the way.” Meagan’s fierce belief in Asher’s possibilities resulted in Asher now being featured in several national ad campaigns, including one for our own brand, The Moodsters.
Asher is a radiant symbol of inclusion and limitless possibility, and the Nash family, loving Asher exactly as he is, has shown us what it means to see the strengths and abilities in everyone, including those who are differently abled. In speaking with Meagan Nash, I became aware of a great need we have in this country: to make sure that we can talk directly about disabilities with our children, who are naturally curious about anyone who seems “different.” It helps children develop their innate sense of empathy when you explain that we all have our differences; some are just more visible than others. Here are ways to have that conversation.
Find common bonds. Perhaps your child has a classmate with a disability. Are there tasks that are difficult for that child? Then ask your child, “What are some things that are hard for you to do?” Are there skills that the classmate is good at? Ask your child, “What are some things that you are good at?” This is a wonderful way to build commonality and connection. We’re more the same than we are different.
See the person first. Teachers in special education learn to refer to, for example, “a child with autism,” not “an autistic child.” None of us is defined by any one aspect of ourselves—so let’s recognize that everyone we meet is made up of many important parts. Help your child understand that autism or Down syndrome or deafness does not tell the whole story of an individual!
Skip the pity. When I was a pediatric oncology nurse, I knew that the last thing a very ill child needed was to have someone come in and say, “Oh, that’s so sad!” Kids want nothing more than to be just like any other kid. My mantra was, “See the child, treat him or her like everyone else, then treat their physical and emotional needs.”
Ask permission before stepping in. It’s a commendable impulse to want to help someone with a disability, but before providing assistance, first ask, “May I help you with that?” Not everyone needs help, or appreciates the implication that they’re incapable. Others, however, may welcome the offer.
Never tolerate bullying or teasing. Children with disabilities are too often subject to this kind of treatment, and it’s intolerable. We must teach our children that if they see this happening, they need to step up to offer support. That’s where the emphasis on empathy makes all the difference in the world.
This is the time of year when we are in search of inspirational stories and messages of hope. Asher Nash is that message of hope for me. May we all learn to give such honest, authentic expression to our feelings, and find the goodness and possibility in others.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.