My nine year-old daughter, ‘The Girl’, happens to have Down’s syndrome.
In my experience, kids with Down’s syndrome often take longer to master, indeed even to attempt, expressive speech and language. Almost all will use some sort of sign-language; it is not that they cannot communicate successfully, it’s that the ability to convey meaning in speech can be delayed.
Recently, The Girl’s friend, ‘IB’, who also has Down’s syndrome, came for a sleepover. The girls had been playing in the back garden with our two dogs. Both sets of parents had expressed joy at our daughters’ increasing facility with and correct use of spoken English. Neither set of parents had noticed that both girls had removed their shoes and socks to play on the slide. “Where are your socks?” IB’s mum asked. “In the dog!” came the reply. Mum evidently assumed that her girl was struggling to find the right words, but ‘The Boss’ and I both knew that IB was speaking no less than the truth.
You see, we have two Wire-Haired Hungarian Vizsla bitches; Hearth-Rug is twelve years old and Sock-Gobbler two.
Hearth-Rug is a solid, grand-piano of a dog. She is friendly and well-tempered, inquisitive and bomb-proof, gentle and loving. Sock-Gobbler is altogether different, a tremulous violin of an animal. From her very earliest days, Sock-Gobbler has done what it says on the tin: socks, J-cloths, The Girl’s pants, dusters; all are eaten and churned through her system – she sicks them up or, well, you know…! We’ve spoken to her breeder and our own vets and we try to keep temptation from her path.
But IB was correct. All four socks had been gobbled. The socks were indeed “In the dog!”
Though The Girl is only in the final few weeks of Year 4, The Boss and I have been busy visiting High schools in preparation for her transition from Primary to Secondary schooling in Year 7. In this venture too we’ve been reminded that a common language doesn’t always result in two or more parties having the same understanding. It is important that professions use technical language amongst themselves. Thus surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists will speak amongst themselves using terms and concepts that they’d never use to a patient. But sometimes such language can be used to exclude despite, on the surface, having the opposite intention. For example: “my disabled child”: has a placement, uses special transport, accesses a mainstream activity, is in transition, has annual reviews, has siblings, requires intervention and has peers; whereas “my non-disabled child”: goes to school, gets the bus, goes swimming, is moving up to college, has parents’ evenings, has brothers and sisters, requires help and support and has friends.
The Boss and I actually believe that The Girl, and her non-disabled peers, will all benefit most by her being involved in mainstream education supported by special needs provision as necessary. Yet we are seeing that we may have a battle on our hands to win this argument in practice even where such schooling options exist locally.
In the meantime, one of the mums at the school gate with an older child assures me that the teachers will soon be talking to The Girl and her peers about ‘growing up’. As another mum wrote, online, “time for me to take my head out of the sand and have a chat with her beforehand”. So we have started recommending books to each other that are pitched at her level of understanding. And here are some of our early reactions to these discussions:
“a few giggles with trying to pronounce [XXX], we managed far better than I’d anticipated!”
“also had a giggle when finding myself asking in home-school diary if they’d be covering [‘YYY’, ‘ZZZ’ and ‘SSS’]!
Given the opportunity for misunderstandings to occur I feel that it will be important to know, when The Girl says something like “the sock is in the dog”, that that is exactly what she means!
Wyn Evans is a member of the Down’s Syndrome Association. He writes regularly for the Cardiff Times: http://bit.ly/1LShs2U