Down syndrome from a father's perspective.

The Down syndrome experience is a common denominator

The Down syndrome experience is a common denominator

The First Church of Cracker Barrel

The former pastor of the church where I attend had a saying he would use whenever things were getting really honest; you know, when it was obvious that what he was saying was hitting “close to home.” He would say something like, “Now we are having some church!” My wife and I “had some church” in Cracker Barrel Saturday night when we met the Spearman family.

It is amazing how God works; something as simple as a last-minute decision to go to Cracker Barrel for supper. The kind of experience we had does not always, or maybe I should say usually does not, work out to be such a positive event. Thankfully this one was positive; we needed it. We walked away from this chance encounter feeling better than when we arrived. Saturday night Down syndrome demonstrated that it is a common link across racial barriers.

Tired and ready to eat

Saturday was a good day for me. Having just finished the busiest time of our seasonal business I was able to get some things done in the yard. And, while working in the yard I was able to hang out with Treyton along with getting the occasional visit from Lindyn as she raced about with her neighborhood friends. Treyton loves to play outside and with his natural curiosity he can make the most mundane task interesting.

At suppertime Leigh Ann and I found ourselves reduced from four kids down to two, we had our oldest and youngest (the middle two girls were each with friends). When we have fewer kids we tend to go out to eat more often as it can be a little easier than when we have the full crew. Leigh Ann thought it would be fun to get the car-side service at Sonic but I followed Bailey’s suggestion of Cracker Barrel because I thought it sounded more relaxing.

As the hostess walked us to our seat we walked past a family and sat down just a little ways from them. I didn’t pay attention to the family, but Leigh Ann noticed something. As she mentioned what she saw I got a “knot” in my stomach; I was not sure which way our dinner was going to go now. Leigh noticed that one of the members of the family we just walked past had Down syndrome. (Once you have a child with Down syndrome you usually notice any other people with Down syndrome wherever you go, it is like you have a “Down syndrome radar”).  It was unusual that I did not notice this man but I was simply hoping our dinner would not get derailed

Speculation about what is and what is to come

Having a child with Down syndrome seems to involve a lot more unknowns than we have with our other kids. As I stated in my post, 7 Things Everyone Should Know About Down Syndrome, the diagnosis is not a determination of the child’s potential. The amount of cognitive impairment varies from one person to the next. We had a speech therapist that said Down syndrome was kind of like Swiss cheese. There are vast areas of solid surface where cognitive functioning is “typical” but then there are these holes. The holes can vary in size and number as well as where they are located. As a result you really do not know what effect that will have on your child’s future.

I like the fact that you cannot predict what my child will or will not be able to do based on someone else. I don’t want to put any limits on him. However, some people may view this unpredictability with angst because they are worried that their child will have bigger and/or more holes. As parents of a child with Down syndrome we do not get to choose if we want this unknown reality. Our only choice is how we are going to handle this uncertainty. The uncertainty is often hard for Leigh Ann. As a mother she worries about what her little boy will be able to do. Will he be able to take care of himself? Will others treat him well? And the list can go on. So, when we see a person with Down syndrome our table conversation can get interesting (tense, depressing, you pick the adjective). But on this night there was not a lot of troubled speculation, in fact, Leigh Ann decided she wanted to stop and talk with this family.

Do they know Treyton has Down syndrome?

As Treyton’s dad I have learned to spot a person with Down syndrome from a ways away (the radar I mentioned). A majority of the common physical characteristics of Down syndrome can be easily seen in most situations. However, Treyton’s physical identifiers are less dominant than many others have so we are not always sure if people can tell. In this case the Spearman family did know, they too have that radar that allows them to spot people with Down syndrome. As we got up from our table Bailey walked past the family with Treyton and they commented on how cute he was. So obviously, we stopped to chat.

Within the first 30 seconds they asked if Treyton had started school yet. That is when I knew that they were aware he had Down syndrome. I mean, the kid is three, why else would someone ask if he had started school yet unless they could see that he had Down syndrome and they knew about the early childhood program.

The Apostle and his family

Seated around the table were Mr. and Mrs. Spearman (later I learned that their titles were Apostle David Spearman and Prophetess Donna Spearman), their 37 year-old son David (he has Down syndrome), their daughter, her husband and their three grandsons. It was a short but very fulfilling conversation. As I write this, two days after the fact, I am still amazed at how easy the conversation was. We certainly were not from similar backgrounds. I am a big white Dutch man in my late thirties and he goes by the title “Apostle” and has a son that is in his late thirties.  Apostle Spearman is the minister at Faith Ministries Center Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and he and his family showed great kindness to me and my family, in a sense they ministered to my family that night.

Their son David is just two years younger than me. I mentioned this that night and I will say it again, “it was a different world back then for people with Down syndrome.”  It was reading the book “Count Us In” when I first realized that it was not very long ago that people with Down syndrome were really treated poorly.  I think that is one of the reasons I was so impressed by the perspective that the Spearman’s had about their son David.  The Apostle told me that when their son was born they decided then that they were going to raise him just like they would any child.  They would love him, care for him, teach him, and discipline him.  The Apostle also said that when David got older he would have to have a job if he was going to continue living under his roof.  David accepted that responsibility and has been working at Subway for a number of years.

The common denominator

In our brief conversation that night we shared a few of our experiences and appreciated the fact that our new friends could relate.  As I consider my own daughters it was wonderful to see how David’s younger sister and her family lovingly embraces him.  Our meeting that night was a living example of the butterfly effect.  Simply by going out to eat as a family and being friendly as I am sure they always are, the Spearman’s were able to make an impact in the life of my family.  It is simple acts like this where Down syndrome is present as a normal part of life and not considered something odd or out-of-place that helps to pave the way for all individuals with Down syndrome.

Rob Arnold has been married to his high school sweetheart for almost 19 years. Together they have three daughters and one son. He earned his bachelor's degree in General Business from Grand Valley State University as well as an MBA in Strategic Management from Davenport University. He enjoys reading, hunting, scuba diving, and spending time with his family.