Is Down Syndrome a Spiritual or Physiological Problem?
Before now, a lot of people in this part of the globe assumed that the condition of Down syndrome is spiritual, such a conclusion had spanned ages. But Down syndrome is not treated in isolation; conditions such as sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, fainting spells among others, were also viewed in this manner until the causes were discovered. Stroke was also viewed as a demonic attack until now when it has been realized that it is mostly caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Yes, by now, we have been able to know that an extra chromosome is responsible for the delay in the physical development and intellectual disabilities of the affected babies. Also, the cause of the extra chromosome is not yet discovered but research is still in progress to ascertain its cause.
We are cognisant of the existence of other diseases which plague humans today, which causes are not yet known; diseases such as Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV), and so on and so forth.
Down memory lane, it is also worthy of note that people erroneously had their misgivings concerning HIV syndrome before the massive campaign against the spread of the virus came to the fore. The same thing applies to health challenges such as cancer and stroke. I can remember when I was in the village, I was made to understand that stroke was an attack of the evil spirits, whereas it is the consequence of uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Enough public awareness campaign of Down syndrome has not been created, the public is not even adequately aware of the condition. How it can be managed and how the affected children can cope and thrive with the condition is neither expatiated nor circulated. A lot of laymen have attributed its cause to supernatural forces; such views are held even in some religious circles!
Attaching much spiritual connotation to this challenge may not encourage women with these children to take adequate care of them. In some Pentecostal churches, they believe that such children are attacked by spiritual forces. Unarguably, those who believe this will never think anything good can come out of children living with this condition. If parents pray for miracles of conversion of the baby from being a ‘demon-possessed’ child but the miracle fails to happen, they will either pray for the child to die or abandon such a child with minimal attention, in other words; nursing him to death slowly.
Mothers who are of this view hardly breast-feed such babies adequately up to the recommended period. It is a common knowledge that some parents even go to the extent of poisoning their babies for fear of the unknown and what others would say when they discover that a critical medical condition is about to set in or has set in. This is very barbaric and will eventually put such parents at the risk of eternal divine punishment.
A critical analysis of Down syndrome condition will reveal to a large extent that it is not to be treated in isolation as spiritual problem, although there is this general belief by a group of Christians that all abnormal conditions are as a result of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. So, Down syndrome is not an exception.
We should be careful to not single out and stigmatise Down syndrome because if a child that is physically challenged is a gift from God, then a child with Down syndrome who is intellectually challenged is a gift from God too. His birth is not influenced by evil spirits as some think or prophesy about.
Accepting the fact that a child born with Down syndrome is created in the image of God but has a condition to battle with and forge ahead will help both parents and the child to cope and equally help the parents to free themselves from every negative attitude towards the baby. This positive disposition to the child will help others to see him in the same light. It is not communicable, it is a genetic issue and not demon-caused.This is how God allows these children to be formed, let us accept them and give them maximum support they need to overcome their challenges in life.
A look at the statistics of every 800 births in the United States alone reveals that 1 Down syndrome baby is part of the number, and there are about 6 million
mothers worldwide; can we now conclude that all the affected mothers are bewitched? Let us not be unfair to our fellow humans. It’s high time we stopped ‘spiritualising’ this condition. Stand up and fight against the stigmatisation of children living with Down syndrome. The onus of responsibility to protect the affected children, and disabuse the minds of the society rests on us. We are their advocates, we are their mouthpieces. The God who created other children is the same God who created children living with Down syndrome.
Reasons for Stigmatisation
In a society like Nigeria and other African countries, the reasons why children with Down syndrome are stigmatised are not far-fetched. In this chapter, I will dwell much on the reasons for such a height of stigmatisation against children living with Down syndrome. Attempt would be made to group these reasons into categories. Efforts will be made to ascertain whether these reasons are justifiable or not, the need for awareness creation would be encouraged, and the need for society to accept the affectedchildren like other children would be emphasised.
The reasons why children with Down syndrome are oftenstigmatised can be grouped into four:
traditional reasons; and
I shall treat these issues one by one:
Ignorance: Down syndrome is an extra chromosomal condition found in some babies in almost all the nations of the world, yet a lot of people do not know about it. They see children living with the condition but know little or nothing about their nature. Such ignorance is more profound in the developing countries where many are predominantly illiterate or semi-literate. It is this lack of knowledge about the condition that makes many believe or have the opinion that children with Down syndrome are children with profound intellectual disabilities. This accounts for reasons for the stigmatisation.
Thus, many illiterate families who happen to have these children abandon them to their fate, since they are considered to be ‘good- for- nothing’. However, some educated families who have these children always try to see how they can help them against all odds at school, church and other social institutions, as the case may be.
Moreover, the educated folks take care of them with little information available to them, while the illiterates do not at all. The latter would quickly abandon such children and sometimes they are not properly breast-fed; with a mindset of having another baby in no time.
Children abandoned in this way are often looked down on by others as abnormal children and consequently they are often stigmatised. Rejection in turn makes their condition worse, such a height of rejection by both parents and the society often affect these children psychologically and emotionally.
Religious reasons: There are so many religious groups in the world today among which Christianity and Islam are most prominent. I do not have adequate knowledge of Muslims’ views on Down syndrome children; hence I will concentrate much on how such children are viewed by different Christian denominations I am conversant with. The Orthodox churches such as The Roman Catholic, The Anglican Church, The Methodist and Evangelical churches accept such children at their management levels as God’s creation and maintain that they are not less human. This view is held by the clergy while most of their congregations are ignorant of such views held by their various denominations. Quite unfortunate that the church also stigmatise these children, but I am aware that the Catholic Church has programmes and homes for such children often managed by Catholic reverend sisters.
The white garment spiritual churches believe that such children are not normal but demon-possessed; some even believe their births are influenced by a particular demon. Some of these spiritual churches also have birth attendants in their churches; another side of the story is that children born in this kind of setting are subjected to all kinds of debased fetish practices. Children born with Down syndrome are seen to be victims of witchcraft, either while in the womb or after they were born. As a result of this superstition, they do not refer their patients to the hospitals for proper handling by the medics; the babies and their parents are rather subjected to some forms of spiritual cleansing which often end up worsening their condition.
Recently, I visited a family where I met a six-year old girl who has neither sit nor walked in her life, but she was without any sign of retarded growth. The shape of her head and ankles were okay. When I had a conversation with the mother, I discovered that at the onset of the problem, she was busy taking the child from one prayer house to another. At the end she got a very bad case to live with, the same people who misled her are now advising her to arrange for a doctor to come home andinject the child with a lethal substance so that she can die. In other words, how many parents would have the courage to kill a child they gave birth to? It is easier said than done, even though we have reported cases of such parents or singles who throw away their babies for several reasons best known to them, the question is- is it morally and legally acceptable? Are we permitted by God to destroy life, no matter the circumstances?
Sometime ago, one of my husband’s friends visited us and my husband narrated the condition of our child to him, he encouraged us and also informed us that one of his children had a condition that made him had a delay in walking. He said something that caught my attention, it was he almost considered poisoning the poor boy before God intervened and eventually the child walked in a church convention. After he left, I was still ruminating over such a revelation that some parents for one reason or the other could consider poisoning a child they gave birth to. Some may not even poison the baby but can intentionally abandon him to die the slow painful death. This is the height of stigmatisation and inhuman treatment often meted outto children with disabilities.