October is Down Syndrome Awareness month! As many of us celebrate, advocate and support those with Down syndrome, my family and I thought we’d share our own personal journey of raising and loving a sweet, little boy named Joseph Dash. With enthusiasm and excitement, Dash’s older sisters, Maya and Emily, have also contributed to this blog … and, provide a wonderful perspective and reflective outlook on their little brother!

When we first discovered our son had Trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, my husband and I were quite devastated. We were on, what seemed to be, an unending roller coaster powered by “what ifs.” Questions, such as, what will be his quality of life, how will his diagnosis affect our other children, and what will the future be like, consumed our thoughts. However, even as we worked through our initial disbelief and fear of the unknown, we knew our son’s presence would warm our hearts, bring new and exciting experiences and enhance our family. Our daughters, Maya and Emily, had the most wonderful, optimistic outlook when we told them of their future brother’s diagnosis … they saw his diagnosis not as a disability, but as a unique gift to be accepted and cherished.

In Joseph Dash’s two short years of life, he has brought our family so much joy and happiness! Handsome, adventurous, playful, funny, loving and outgoing, are just a few words that come to mind when describing Dash. His adorable smile, infectious laughter and easy-going personality positively impacts all those around him. Whether he’s being dressed up and swung in the air by his older sisters, entertaining others with his silly facial expressions or pushed to his maximum potential by his therapists, Dash’s contagious spirit, energy and enthusiasm can transform and illuminate an entire room. When he’s not supporting his sisters at their cheer competitions, watching “his” favorite college (Penn State or University of Houston) football teams on television, or playing with the numerous non-toy items around the house, Dash can be found listening and dancing to a wide variety of music while also playing his drums, bongos, guitar, piano or harmonica! And, on the sideline, you’ll always see one or both of his sisters cheering him on … for, they are, without a doubt, his biggest fans! To see them introduce Dash with pride and enthusiasm; applaud his developmental achievements with excitement and joy; freely answer questions about their brother’s diagnosis; beg to hold him with anticipation and longing; and, fight over who gets to “live with him forever,” is truly heart-warming and inspiring.

Although as parents we walk somewhat blindly into the future with our children, there is a general roadmap many of us unconsciously reference and rely on to help guide our children’s health, development and education. Quite figuratively, we had to replace these “familiar” resources with Joseph Dash’s own roadmap … one that delineated his own path and journey … and, at a pace and speed only he can determine. As parents, we believe (and know) Dash will achieve his goals and dreams, create and sustain long-term and meaningful relationships, and reach his maximum potential. His life … our lives … are quite “normal”… and, through his presence, has taught all of us about unconditional love, patience, acceptance, open-mindedness and gratitude.

Maya Van Zandt (12-year-old sister):

My brother is Joseph Dash Van Zandt, and he has Down syndrome.  He, in my eyes, is a little ball of sunshine! When he cries, he will give you a high five, no matter how hard he is crying. And, if you are sad, he will come right up to you, sit on you and give you a big smile, which makes you feel so much better.

Dash has changed my point of view on children with special needs. I used to think of special needs children as dramatically different than the rest of society. But, now I see them as equal. They are equal to others because we are all human. It doesn’t matter what we look like, what we can or can’t do, or what labels have been given to us. Everyone is unique in their own special way.

When people used to make fun, or mimic, the way people with special needs talked or looked, I used to stay quiet. Now, I will stand up for people with special needs. If you have the chance to take care of a person with special needs, don’t hesitate to do it. You will immediately enjoy talking, playing, helping or taking care of him or her.

Dash has majorly impacted my life! My brother is 2 years old and has changed the way I have looked at people and the world. I am proud to say Joseph Dash is my brother.

Emily Van Zandt (10-year-old sister):

Joseph Dash Van Zandt is my little brother. He is 2 years old and he inspires me to do my best every day! Although he has Down syndrome, Joseph is like any other baby brother. He loves to play, have fun, mess up the house, make loud noises and laugh. When I am with Joseph, I do not even think about his Down syndrome.

If I see other people with Down syndrome, I feel happy and I smile! I know even though they may have a disability, they are still like everyone else!

Joseph's Story: Down Syndrome Awareness Month
Originally posted here by Dr. Katherine Leaming Van-Zandt, emergency medicine physician at Texas Children’s Hospital