Desiree Andrews, a cheerleader with Down syndrome at Lincoln Middle School, experienced bullying during a basketball game last year. But what’s happening this year at the school is an inspiring lesson in standing up for what’s right. (Photo: Kenosha (Wis.) News/Kevin Poirier)
Last year, a member of the seventh-grade boys basketball team at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, caught some people in the stands teasing Desiree Andrews, a cheerleader with Down syndrome.
He couldn’t take it. He refused to be a bystander to her bullying.
“One of the kids stepped up and said, ‘Don’t mess with her,’” Brandon Morris, Lincoln’s seventh-grade coach last year, told Kenosha News. “Then all of the guys got together to show her support.”
That support has carried over to this year’s eighth-grade squad, which has made Desiree a fixture of the team’s rituals. The starting five players give her fist-bumps and high-fives as they’re announced before games. The school’s gymnasium was renamed “D’s House” as a nod to Desiree.
“They have really stepped up, almost like they are big brothers to her,” eighth-grade coach David Tolefree told Kenosha News. “It’s good to see.”
Her dad agrees. “It’s been a godsend to us,” he said. “Those boys, I tried to talk to them in person, but I couldn’t keep the tears back.”
This isn’t the only recent example of increasing understanding and acceptance of Down syndrome. Last month, actress Jamie Brewer became the first-ever model with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week, as part of designer Carrie Hammer’s Fall 2015 presentation.
Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder in which a person receives an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21. One in every 691 babies is born with the condition. In fact, around 6,000 are born with Down syndrome in a given year in the U.S., making it the most common genetic disorder.
Even still, it’s a condition doctors and researchers don’t know enough about yet. The causes are not well-understood, although some cases of the condition may have to do with increasing age of the mother. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, scientists are also looking into environmental and genetic indicators that may be risk factors for the syndrome, but no research has been definitive.
But that’s not to say current research on the disorder is not promising. According to the NIH, current studies involve looking into gastrointestinal anomalies that may be factors in Down syndrome by sex, race and ethnicity, as well as the effectiveness of early intervention programs in learning and development.
“In the past six or seven years there have been several breakthroughs — and ‘breakthroughs’ is not by any means too big a word — in understanding the neurochemistry in Down syndrome,” Johns Hopkins researcher and geneticist Roger Reeves told Scientific American.
In 2014, Reeves led a team that worked to restore the brains of mice whose cerebellums had been genetically engineered to show signs characteristic of Down syndrome. The cerebellums were modified to be roughly 40 percent smaller than normal size.
The researchers injected a chemical that sparked activity in a key neurodevelopmental pathway. That chemical concoction regrew the cerebellum, as Reeves expected — but it also had the mice navigating a water maze in three months’ time, using important learning and memory skills previously thought to be controlled by the hippocampus.
Whether the scientists also fixed the hippocampus by happy accident, or discovered that the cerebellum has more functionality than researchers ever realized, is an important first step toward developing new therapies for those with Down syndrome.
The possibility of giving people with Down syndrome “the ability to improve learning and memory significantly — that’s something I never thought I’d see in my entire career,” Reeves explained. “And it’s now happening. The game has changed.”