What's it like to have Down Syndrome?

What's it like to have Down Syndrome?

I Have Down Syndrome—Know Me Before You Judge Me

When I first started to work on this story, I thought maybe I shouldn’t do it. I thought you might see that I have Down syndrome, and that you wouldn’t like me.

My mom thinks that’s silly. “Have you ever met anyone who didn’t like you because you have Down syndrome?” she asks me. She’s right, of course. (She usually is!)

When people ask me what Down syndrome is, I tell them it’s an extra chromosome. A doctor would tell you the extra chromosome causes an intellectual disability that makes it harder for me to learn things. (For instance, some of my classes are in a “resource room,” where kids with many kinds of learning disabilities are taught at a different pace.)

When my mom first told me I had Down syndrome, I worried that people might think I wasn’t as smart as they were, or that I talked or looked different.

I just want to be like everyone else, so sometimes I wish I could give back the extra chromosome. But having Down syndrome is what makes me “me.” And I’m proud of who I am. I’m a hard worker, a good person, and I care about my friends.

Melissa Riggio shares her thoughts about Down syndrome.

A Lot Like You

Even though I have Down syndrome, my life is a lot like yours. I read books and watch TV. I listen to music with my friends. I’m on the swim team and in chorus at school. I think about the future, like who I’ll marry. And I get along with my sisters—except when they take my CDs without asking!

Some of my classes are with typical kids, and some are with kids with learning disabilities. I have an aide who goes with me to my harder classes, like math and biology. She helps me take notes and gives me tips on how I should study for tests. It really helps, but I also challenge myself to do well. For instance, my goal was to be in a typical English class by 12th grade. That’s exactly what happened this year!

But sometimes it’s hard being with typical kids. For instance, I don’t drive, but a lot of kids in my school do. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, and that’s hard to accept.

Dream Job: Singer

I try not to let things like that upset me and just think of all the good things in my life. Like that I’ve published two songs. One of my favorite things to do is write poetry, and this singer my dad knows recorded some of my poems as singles.

Right now someone else is singing my songs, but someday, I want to be the one singing. I know it’s going to happen, because I’ve seen it. One day I looked in the mirror, and I saw someone in my head, a famous person or someone who was somebody, and I just knew: I will be a singer.

It’s true that I don’t learn some things as fast as other people. But that won’t stop me from trying. I just know that if I work really hard and be myself, I can do almost anything.

See Me

But I still have to remind myself all the time that it really is OK to just be myself. Sometimes all I see—all I think other people see—is the outside of me, not the inside. And I really want people to go in there and see what I’m all about.

Maybe that’s why I write poetry—so people can find out who I really am. My poems are all about my feelings: when I hope, when I hurt. I’m not sure where the ideas come from—I just look them up in my head. It’s like I have this gut feeling that comes out of me and onto the paper.

I can’t change that I have Down syndrome, but one thing I would change is how people think of me. I’d tell them: Judge me as a whole person, not just the person you see. Treat me with respect, and accept me for who I am. Most important, just be my friend.

After all, I would do the same for you.

Bonding over cookies!

My sisters are always there for me, even when just having fun.

My sisters, Christina (left) and Laura, are two of the most important people in my life.

Horseback riding helps relax me.

What Is Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome is an intellectual disability that about 5,000 babies in the United States are born with each year. A person with Down syndrome has 47 chromosomes, microscopic structures that carry genetic information to determine almost everything about a person. Most people have only 46 chromosomes. It’s the extra chromosome that can cause certain physical characteristics (such as short stature and an upward slant to the eyes) and speech and developmental delays. Still, people with Down syndrome are a lot like you: They are unique people with strengths and talents.

By Melissa Riggio, as told to Rachel Buchholz

Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt