Being the mom of a child with Down syndrome has reshaped the way Jillian Benfield thinks about intelligence.

Jillian Benfield

As the mom of three wrote on her blog, News Anchor to Homemaker, she has always admired intellectual ability. So when she learned her son, Anderson, would be born with Down syndrome, she worried about what that would mean:

The hardest thing for me when we got Anderson’s diagnosis was the fact that he’d be living with an intellectual disability. I worried about him socially, but also about what he’d be able to do in school; what he’d be able to do after school.

I equated intelligence with success. I use [sic] to hold intelligence in the highest esteem.

But now things have changed. It started when Jillian was still pregnant with Anderson. A special education teacher reached out to the expectant mom in an email and told her how Down syndrome students had a “higher intelligence” that she described as “an intuition, an emotional knowing.”

Jillian Benfield

Jillian told Dearly that the teacher’s email helped:

“I was comforted when she reached out to me. … I was mostly done with the grieving process that took place and I was ready and open to hearing the positive.”

Now that Anderson is nearly three, he has reshaped Jillian’s former concerns about benchmarks and milestones. She told Dearly that her son has plenty of the “‘normal’ kind of intelligence”:

“He understands everything around him even if he’s not able to verbally express it all of the time. As his therapists and teachers have pointed out to me on multiple occasions, he knows exactly how to get what he wants and he’s quite good at it.”

But just as the teacher promised, he’s also more intuitive and sensitive. Jillian got to see this firsthand during Thanksgiving week, when both she and her husband got sick at the same time. She wrote:

After a really painful night, I got enough strength to walk downstairs to fill my water bottle. My toddler, Anderson, greeted me. He came waddling over with his arms stretched out high. I thought he wanted me to pick him up, but instead he just hugged my neck. He patted my shoulders and kissed my head.

I went back upstairs, closing the baby gate behind me, a move that would have normally resulted in a sad, frustrated boy. But this time, it didn’t. He held onto the gate, looked at me as I walked upstairs and gave me what I thought was a reassuring smile.

In that moment, she could tell that her son understood how she was feeling. She wrote:

He knew. He knew I was sick. He knew I couldn’t really be “mummm” that day. He knew I needed comfort. He knew.

For a mom who is concerned about the gap between Anderson and his peers, it was a reminder that there is something special about her son. She told Dearly:

“I used to get caught up on him being the same. And in many ways, he is the same as kids his age. He’s mischievous, hilarious, he loves toys and Sesame Street. But there’s also something a bit magical about his extra chromosome. He feels deeply, even at two years old. He hurts when others hurt.”

Having Anderson in her life has changed how Jillian thinks about success. Now, her focus is on raising good people — the kind that “put others first” and “comfort the broken.” And Anderson’s gift of empathy makes him exactly the kind of person who can do that.

Jillian Benfield

Times have changed, and Jillian is aware of the success stories about people with Down syndrome who compete in pageants, run businesses, and graduate from college. And while she would be thrilled if Anderson follows a similar path, all she really wants is for him to make a difference in other people’s lives. She wrote:

I realize now, the teacher said “higher intelligence” because she really meant of higher importance. Perhaps she also meant that it is a gift from above.

Jillian told Dearly that her life has its challenges, but those are dwarfed by the gift that Anderson has brought them:

“Having a child with Down syndrome is often like living a life intensified. The highs are higher, the lows are lower. Having a child with Down syndrome has no doubt added complications to our lives, but it has also made our lives all the more beautiful.”

She added:

“Anderson often teaches me more than I teach him. He has become my guide on this new life of mine.”

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