The Unseen Power of Thinking Differently, by Andi Sligh

When my son was first introduced to basic addition facts, my husband opted to do some visual practice with him one day. He held up one finger on each hand and asked Nathan how many fingers he was holding up, first on one hand (“One”), then the other (“One”). Then he moved his hands together so that his two fingers were side-by-side and asked him what number he was holding up. Without hesitation, Nathan responded, “Eleven.”

I mean, he wasn’t wrong. We expected him to add one and one together and come up with two, but his brain saw two ones side-by-side, which is an eleven. I’m not exaggerating when I say that The Eleven was a watershed moment in my understanding of how Nathan views the world differently. Stereotypes about people with Down syndrome abound – always happy, intellectually disabled, and so on – and it’s true in Nathan’s case that he is a pretty carefree kid who is academically behind his same-age peers. But what I never understood until this wonderful little person became part of our family is that those stereotypes are comparisons with typical people, and it’s a disservice to someone like Nathan to categorize him based on how he is or isn’t like them.

nNathan is eleven now and despite many positive experiences in public school, I began homeschooling him this year. We continue to drill single-digit addition and subtraction facts daily, and I often wonder if he will ever do single-digit calculations with 100% accuracy. But interestingly, I sat at the table with him this morning while he completed three-digit addition problems with ease (and frankly, a look of boredom!) How could the boy who in one moment had written that 8-5=2 come up with 516+342=858 just a few minutes later? These are not isolated incidents, either; I routinely cycle between frustration at what he hasn’t mastered and amazement at what he understands.

In addition to his carefree nature, Nathan is what I would describe as “empathetically gifted”; he has a knack for recognizing the emotional needs of others and doing what he can to fill them. A couple of years ago, he chose to sit next to one particular lady, a stranger in a room full of them. I worried that he might annoy her or be too much in her personal space, but she assured me he was fine. After a few minutes, he reached out and held her hand, and I saw her visibly relax. Until he did that, I hadn’t noticed she was tense, but he did.

In the same way that he understood the big-picture concept of adding three-digit numbers without having consistent mastery of the basic facts, he saw a lady in need and used his gifts to meet that need without regard for the details of her situation. This ability to think differently – and it is an ability, not a disability – is a good lesson for someone like me – a “typical” thinker.

In our homeschool of one pupil, I work to teach Nathan about our faith. We start and end each day with prayers, review the catechism, read Bible stories, and discuss various saints each month. I don’t know how much of it he comprehends on an academic level, but he points out things at Mass that we’ve talked about during school, so I know at least some of it is getting through. What I am sure of is that no effort undertaken for the glory of God will be wasted, and because Nathan thinks and sees thing differently, I expect that one day soon he’ll demonstrate a profound understanding of God that an ordinary person like me would otherwise miss. I can’t wait.

Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at ,

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