A while back, someone said she wanted info about autism. “I know a lot about that,” I said. “There’s an autistic person in my family.” She smiled. “Oh, yes, I saw the pictures of your sister! But I’m talking about milder forms of autism.” I almost laughed. My sister, Katie, has Down syndrome. But autism and Down syndrome are different.
I know that not everyone has personal experience like I do. So, I’ll go over some of the differences.
What Each Condition Is
First, let’s define each one.
What is Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is genetic. It comes from an extra copy of the 21st chromosome.
Here are some signs of Down syndrome:
- Unique facial features
- Other body changes
- Intellectual disability
- Health problems
Down syndrome is often visible in the face. Signs include a flat face, wide almond-shaped eyes, a button nose, a big forehead, and small teeth. They also have short fingers, short stature, short legs, and a bigger gap between the big toe and the other toes. Frankly, I think it makes Katie cuter than average.
Down syndrome affects IQ. Math, reading, and other skills are delayed. (However, that doesn’t mean they never learn.) Things like counting change or reading advanced books are harder. Because of this, Katie goes to special ed.
I asked Katie to tell me what Down syndrome means to her. Here’s what she said:
Down syndrome is part of your DNA. You got extra DNA from your parents. Down syndrome is a great life. Also, Down syndrome is very exciting. It makes you different. Sometimes, you get lucky to have it. Down syndrome is special because this is who you are.
In the past, Down syndrome was thought to be caused by sin. People said it happened because the parents did something wrong. Thus, they were unlucky enough to get a child with Down syndrome.
Nowadays, we know that Down syndrome is genetic. It just happens. Besides, many families of people with Down syndrome say they’re pretty darn lucky. After all, people with Down syndrome tend to be cheerful, friendly, and kind. We’re lucky to have Katie.
What is Autism?
Autism is mostly genetic. However, we don’t know all the details yet.
Here’s what Katie says autism means:
Autism is part of your DNA. Sometimes, autistic people will struggle with loud sounds. And getting confused. You’re still special when you are autistic. It is fun to be autistic.
This description is sweet, but it doesn’t cover everything. Since autism is very complex, it’s hard to cover every single trait. Thus, we’ll talk about some of the major ones. It has social traits and other traits.
- Unusual social approach
- Not initiating
- Trouble making friends
- Trouble understanding others
- Different body language
This means that it can be harder for autistic people to be social. If it’s hard to understand people, then it’s harder to befriend them. It’s also harder to date, understand social rules, and recognize bullies.
Their body language can also be different. Many autistic people don’t like eye contact. They can find it scary and intense. Instead, they might prefer to sit or walk side by side. Also, they may fidget a lot. It helps them feel comfortable. However, it doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to you. This is important to know so you don’t misunderstand them.
Unfortunately, many autistic people are bullied for being “weird” or “different.”
Other traits include:
- Literal thinking
- Out-of-the-box thinking
- Need for routine
- Intense interests
- Sensory sensitivity
Autistic people experience the world differently. Sometimes this is difficult and other times, it’s an advantage. Above all, we need to recognize that it’s real. If loud noises or startling things bother them, then they’re allowed to feel that way. Nobody should feel like their feelings are difficult or less important.
Some Perspective on Autism
Autism used to be seen as a behavior disorder. In the past, people saw these differences and thought they should be punished.
Nowadays, we know that these things help autistic people feel comfortable. Fidgeting helps them stay calm. Enjoying their interests isn’t wrong, and it can be fun to join them.
Besides, some parts of autism are good. I had several autistic friends in college. They were fun, creative, unique people who made me laugh. If I needed an opinion, then I knew I could count on them to tell the truth. Whatever I did, they didn’t judge me for being different.
Above all, it’s important to respect who they are.
A Few Differences Between Autism and Down Syndrome
Some of the main differences between Down syndrome and autism include:
- Intellectual disability
- Body language
Looks: People with Down syndrome look different. You can almost always tell at a glance. Meanwhile, autistic people look like everyone else.
Intellect: Almost all people with Down syndrome have an intellectual disability. Thus, things like counting change, reading large books, and understanding the world are harder. Meanwhile, autism doesn’t lower your IQ. (In fact, autism genes are linked to intelligence.) Autistic people can have any level of intelligence.
Body language: Down syndrome doesn’t change body language. Autistic people tend to fidget and avoid eye contact. This helps them feel better, so don’t tell them to stop.
Of course, you can’t always tell. For example, if someone has mosaic Down syndrome, then some of their cells have Down syndrome and some don’t. That means the signs might be subtler. Autistic people can also “mask” or hide their natural behavior. However, this is bad for their mental health. (Nobody should have to hide who they are.)
These signs are there, whether they’re obvious or not. If someone is open about it, then it means they trust you with who they are.
Next, let’s hear what Katie has to say.
I know that they were different with different kind of food. Down syndrome likes spice and autism doesn’t like it as much. Down syndrome likes to smell a little spice and autism does not. They have different shows. Down syndrome and autism are different, to watch different shows they are interested in. That’s all I want to say.
“Red,” the autistic person in our family, has a sensitive nose and tongue. Thus, they don’t enjoy spicy food. When she talks about “different shows,” she means that she and Red sometimes watch different TV shows. For example, Katie likes Hannah Montana and Red likes This Is Us. (Though Katie might like This Is Us if she tried it.)
Katie’s story brings up a good point: everyone is different. Disability causes some of these differences, but others are just personality.
How Autism and Down Syndrome are Similar
Meanwhile, they both share some traits.
- Developmental delays
- Need for love and support
People with both conditions will have delays. Learning skills like talking, riding a bike, doing chores, and managing money might take longer. Thus, it’s important for people to be patient. Never blame someone for needing more time. Setting too-high expectations isn’t fair to them. Instead, meet them where they are.
Also, independence will be harder. They might not be able to be fully independent. Instead of pushing them into something they aren’t ready for, help them. Find what’s realistic and not too stressful. Help them learn at their own pace.
Above all, people with both conditions need love and support. It isn’t always easy to be disabled. Thus, they need to be surrounded by helpful people. It’s important to give them a safe environment where they can learn without feeling ashamed.
The Bottom Line
Let’s hear Katie’s voice on this one.
They got the same shows. You like music. You can be twins with the same outfit. It is fun thing to do.
Katie’s words shift from how people might be innately similar to how we can choose to find things in common. In my family, “twin” outfits tend to happen, both by accident and on purpose. (Quite a few of us have similar tastes in clothes.)
Katie believes we can find things that we share. Regardless of autism, Down syndrome, or other conditions, we all have plenty in common. For example, the person next to you on the bus might share your taste in music. Or the person eating lunch at your table might have the same favorite TV show as you. A disability doesn’t change that.
Everyone’s different. We don’t have to deny it. We can embrace it and look for the things we have in common at the same time.
Don’t avoid autistic people or people with Down syndrome. Instead, recognize that they could be very good friends. After all, sometimes a stranger is a friend you haven’t made yet.