Trick or Treat: People with Down Syndrome Look the Same

October 13, 2011 · 12 comments

in The Boy & Down Syndrome

As part of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I’m posting a series, “Trick or Treat,” throughout October to expose some myths about Down syndrome. I hope that you’ll find it helpful and informative.

Myth: People with Down syndrome all look alike.

Truthfully, anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time already knows that this myth is untrue. Putting aside the whole he’s-chunky-she’s-a-beanpole thing, Nathan looks a LOT like Sarah Kate. While it is true that people with Down syndrome have a number of common, recognizable facial features (such as almond-shaped eyes, small ears, a somewhat flat facial profile, small mouths, and round faces), they look much more like their families than they do other people with Down syndrome (unless, of course the families share similar characteristics!)

The Origin of the Myth

What I’m about to say may sound a little “un-PC” but I hope it will help to show these facial features in a different light. The common characteristics of Down syndrome correspond to the common characteristics of people of different ethnicities. For example, I have two friends in my running group who are of Asian descent – one Korean, the other Japanese (at least I think she is Japanese, based on her maiden name – if you’re reading this, C, correct me if I’m wrong!) When our group was fairly new, a lot of people got them confused. The point is that while people with Down syndrome may share some common characteristics because of their unique genetic makeup, they no more “all look alike” than do all light-skinned people, dark-skinned people, or Asian people.

Our wee human brains, as amazing as they are, tend to compartmentalize things which aren’t familiar to us. Because people with Down syndrome have facial features that we can recognize, we have a tendency to “group” them without considering the individuals. Even Dr. John Langdon Down, famous for being the first to recognize Down syndrome and for whom Down syndrome was named, theorized in 1866 that people with Trisomy-21 were of a specific race: Mongolian.

During Dr. Down’s time, Mongolian peoples were wrongly believed to be less developed than other races, and because of the epicanthal folds around the eyes which are shared by many people with Down syndrome, as well as people of Asian descent, Dr. Down made assumptions that were later proven to be untrue. Following his paper on the topic, the term “mongoloids” was widely adopted and continued to be used until the late 20th century when the true cause, Trisomy 21, was determined.

For a wonderful collection of images that highlight diversity in faces of people with Down syndrome, check out I’m Down with You, An Inspired Journey. The book contains stunning portraits of babies, young children, older children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults. It’s a beautiful illustration of this unique community.

Now enjoy a few diverse faces of Down syndrome from around the blogosphere (clicking on the images will take you to the blogger’s site).

Down syndrome, baby, boy

Nathan

Rachel - Courtesy sassysoutherngal.posterous.com

Lauren - Courtesy ourtypicallife.org

Ellie - Courtesy ellietheurer.blogspot.com

Before you knew someone with Down syndrome, did you believe this myth? How do you feel now? Tell me!

Other Posts in this series:

Trick or Treat: Always Happy

Trick or Treat: Severely Mentally Retarded

If you enjoyed this post, download my FREE eBook, There's Sunshine Behind the Cloudsa resource for special needs parents. There’s Sunshine Behind the Clouds: Surviving the Early Years as a Special Needs Mom is for every mother of a child with special needs who is at the beginning of the journey, struggling to gain her footing on ever-shifting sands. It focuses on how to not only survive the emotional roller coaster of special needs parenting, but enjoy the ride.
Adrienne K October 13, 2011 at 10:35 am

I think that we like to be able to “identify” or diagnose what we see when we see people with differences. I think it’s a bit comforting even to be able to look at someone, recognize the facial features and be able to say “Oh, that person has Down syndrome.” The same way we automatically look at anyone with a familiar look and identify them “That person’s Asian…. That person’s a woman… etc”.

The story that comes to mind when I read this post today, is one from my family. My sister is a pediatrician and one day a relative was telling a story about a student in her class. She said to my sister “He has a syndrome… the one where they have a larger head and small ears.” My sisters response was “You just described almost every syndrome out there.” For me, I’ve been self-educated on a number of syndromes/conditions and sometimes I can see things that other people might not. Then again, my sister has been known to look at a patient and diagnose new-onset-diabetes based not on symptoms but because “well, he had the LOOK. There’s just this LOOK to new onset diabetes. I can’t describe it to you, I just KNOW it.”

So I do think that the more familiar we are with a condition (Is that an ok word? I can’t think of a word I want to use,) the more likely we are to characterize it. Since Down characteristics are a little more obvious (for lack of another better word?) I think it’s easier for the average person to identify it and “lump” it.

Andi October 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I agree with you, Adrienne. I think it’s in many ways just the way our brains are hardwired to help us comprehend the world around us. Those of us who are “in tune” with specific conditions can more easily identify them, and by extension, see through the Big Noticeable Thing to the individual person’s characteristics. Mr. Andi and I can now spot a person with cerebral palsy from a mile away – and CP is a pretty broad umbrella term for a variety of conditions. We know when we see someone with Down syndrome, even though we’ve met pretty much no one with DS who looks anything like Nathan!

Beth October 13, 2011 at 11:12 am

I will be typing up a response when the kids nap!

Also – thats my Beaner!

Andi October 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I love me some Lauren!

Liana October 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm

You are so right all people with down syndrome do not look the same as every other person with it. My brother is 37 with down syndrome and he looks very much like his birth mother. They are all similar with the traits of down syndrome but not the same! The one thing I have found that almost all people with DS have is an over abundance of love! My brother has a genuine love of all people and things and shows it freely. We all need to take a few lessons from them on how to live life to the fullest, love every minute of it and not care what anyone else thinks!

Andi October 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I agree with you, Liana. I met a woman last spring who has Down syndrome and referred to it as “the love chromosome” – she even maintains a website by that name.

When we participated in our first Buddy Walk last year, I loved seeing the diversity in faces – it’s not often that you see that many people with Ds in one place, all of different ages and family genetics. I can’t wait to see the new faces (we’ll be at a different walk this year) this time around!

Anna Theurer October 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I am just catching up on your blog. . . it appears we are writing very similar posts :) Loved seeing my little Ellie Bear.

Mike Nichols October 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm

It’s very easy to prove your point: Google “down syndrome.” Then click on “images” in the left column.

You will see literally hundreds of photos of people of all ages with Down Syndrome. The appearance of every person is distinctly individual and different. I conservatively estimate that not one in twenty exhibit more than a couple of the facial characteristics commonly associated with Down Syndrome.

You are absolutely right about humans’ tendency to lump groups of people together by the general way they look. For example, I used to pigeonhole all people of Asian ancestry together into a single “Oriental” category.

Then I came into a situation where I interacted daily with Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other people of Asian extraction. Soon I was thumping myself on the forehead and going “Duh!” Each Asian nationality is *very* different from the others, and the appearance of individuals has just as much variation as any other group of people we are familiar with.

Ruth Nichols October 27, 2011 at 10:52 am

I’ve been going through some old family photos and have found several of Mr. Andi at different ages. His toddler pictures could be Nathan and I can see future Nathan in his teenage pictures.

ali January 10, 2012 at 11:39 am

i have 5 months son with down cyendrome,so much contious for him,he is my second son,i dont know how to treat with him,i love him alot,i dont have enough money to arrange things for him even i dont know what kind of things he need.

ferdinand quirab September 17, 2013 at 1:43 am

we must love the children that are special because they want also to be treat as normal so we must love them:)

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