The half-truth of the happiness stereotype for my son with Down syndrome

Stereotypes exist for a reason I guess. They come from a collection of commonly seen characteristics attributed to one type of person. Sometimes they are damaging and hurtful and sometimes they are harmless. I don’t particularly like them because they encourage people into lazy thinking especially about a type of person they know very little about. That means that if someone knows very little about people with Down syndrome for example, they will often resort to the common stereotypes available to frame an initial understanding.

People with Down syndrome and those who know and love them, will tell you that a lot of the stereotypes do not apply and yet they persist despite that. I have come across a few since Wade was born but the most common by far is the old chestnut…“They’re always so happy!”
I hear it from well-meaning strangers almost weekly. I have perfected my nod-and-smile response mostly because I just don’t have the energy to educate every single person I run into, but also because the response is complicated. There is an element of truth to it but it’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

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Wade is NOT happy all the time. Half an hour ago I was fielding eye-daggers thrown because I told him to take a break from the iPad. The fact that it was burning up in his lap and his retinas were close to falling out onto the screen was not a big deal to him. He pitched a shit-fit and stared out the window occasionally looking over at me as though I had just drowned a puppy.

He can sulk and be naughty along with the best of them but, if I am completely honest with myself, he is pretty happy most of the time. I haven’t thought about it much before because I didn’t want to encourage that kind of stereotypical thinking about Wade but an incident happened on holiday recently that made me realise this is a part of him that needs as much nurture as the other parts to his personality.

We have been away in tropical Far North Queensland for a much needed week away. A couple of days in, my immune system put its feet up too and dropped the ball so I picked up a lurgy. It came on pretty quickly and I was face down with a fever for a night. I tucked myself up in bed and Wade was sitting beside me giving me this look. You know the one..I’ve written about it a hundred times…the one that looks into your soul and understands immediately what is going on. The beauty of high emotional intelligence that Wade has in spades.

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As he was staring into my eyes, I said, “I don’t feel very well. I feel a bit sick and it makes me sad.”

Lately, I’ve been trying to get Wade to articulate how he is feeling and why. I can usually get him to tell me what he wants to eat or do but feelings are a bit more abstract I guess. It’s something we have been working on a bit because if he is having a hard time or is feeling sad or scared I want him to be able to tell me and tell me why.

So I start explaining that I don’t feel well and that is why I am sad. But Wade cut me off saying,

“No, No! Only happy”

It took me by surprise — I have been asking him out of the blue recently if he is happy or sad just to get his response. He almost always says ‘happy’. Sometimes he will then quickly say ‘sad’ but I think he thinks that’s part of the game. This time it was clear. He didn’t want me to be sad. He only wanted happiness.

Of course I just melted because it was devastatingly beautiful but I said to him,

“When someone tells you they are sad, you should ask them why.”

“Why you sad mummy?”

“Because I am sick and I don’t feel very well”


“Oh, Doctor!”

Then he proceeded to self talk to an imaginary doctor for a little bit then ‘became’ the doctor for me. He pulled back the sheet and started to check my heart with an imaginary stethoscope.

“How’s my heart Dr Wade? Am I going to make it?”

“There”
he said, tapping me softly.


“Thanks Dr Wade.”

“You’re most welcome”

As I was handed a tissue, Wade took it and started wiping my nose and my chin.

“Ice cream everywhere!” he said.
Then, of course, my heart exploded and the room was flooded with happiness.

Wade experiences lots of different emotions. Some he is more comfortable with than others. He does grumpy and frustrated fairly well but he is never really shy or intimidated. He is mostly at peace and very welcoming to all the world has to offer him.
Sadness is something that just seems to confound him. If he falls and hurts himself, he cries because it hurts — that’s simple enough. But sadness isn’t as obvious I guess and he seems to avoid feeling it if he can.

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In the modern world we are told to endlessly pursue constant happiness and while the notion of being happy all the time is a lovely idea, it’s not a good one in my opinion. We need to feel scared and sad and upset. We can’t just ignore the feelings and pretend they are not there because they are warning signs of something that needs attention in our lives. They are signals that foreshadow important events and opportunities to learn from our mistakes or learn from the negativity of others.
Although Wade isn’t happy all the time, there is actually a problem with being too easy going I have found. His easy going nature combined with a high pain tolerance means I have to be very careful when he is sick or injured. He just won’t grizzle or complain so he could easily be very unwell or hurt and I wouldn’t have any idea.

He is also now at kinder and will start school at some stage. I need him him to be able to tell me how he is feeling and if he is sad. I won’t be there all the time to see if he is being bullied or mistreated. My instincts are pretty good but I would rather be able to have a conversation with him about how he feeling and the things that cause that instead of trying to put the pieces together myself. Feeling happy with the world all the time means he has to learn how to be suspicious and cynical. He needs to understand that not every stranger is an unmet friend for him to be safe as a child and as an adult.

So in Wade’s case I have to admit that the stereotype of him ‘being happy all the time’ is mostly true but it’s not necessarily something I want to perpetuate. It’s just as important that he learns sadness and caution as it is for him to learn reading and writing. While it might make the world giddy with joy to imagine a group of people who are shiny and happy all the time, I would prefer people to imagine Wade as a fully rounded person who may need a bit more help to understand the full range of emotions he will experience…like everyone else.

The other common stereotype – stubbornness? Well that’s a lot easier to answer. Yes yes and yes…but there’s a huge possibility that comes from my DNA and not the extra 21st chromosome!

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One thought on “The half-truth of the happiness stereotype for my son with Down syndrome

  1. Thanks for this blog Teesh. You write very well. I love the imagec you created of the interactions between you and Wade when your were sick. What you are saying about teaching emotions is excellent and relevant for all of us. I certainly don’t do scared or sad very well at all. I do know that we need to embrace those emotions so thanks for the reminder xx Sue Bush

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