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Switched at Birth hits hard on myths about Down syndrome

ABC Family’s Switched at Birth tackles the plotline of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome this week. The very natural swirling emotions spotlight some of the most difficult myths about raising a child with Down syndrome.

Within the first few seconds of the exclusive featurette featured below, John Kennish practically hyperventilates while berating Toby — the teenage father — about whether he knows “how much it costs to raise a kid like that?”

More: Switched at Birth theory: The baby is the plot twist Toby needs most

Ouch. Look, I’m only five years into my own parenting-a-child-with-Down-syndrome gig, but I feel qualified to respond.

The truth is that raising a child with Down syndrome will always be more expensive and much harder than raising the unborn child you’ve conjured up in your mind. After all, most expectant parents imagine a parenthood punctuated by perfection, happiness and smooth sailing when they have no reason to believe otherwise.

This leads me to the argument I hope Switched at Birth presents in Monday night’s episode: raising all children is hard and expensive, period. Is it fair to assume a tougher, costlier experience with a child who has an extra chromosome?

More: 10 Switched at Birth spoilers proving it’s going to be a controversial season

The oldest of our children, Charlie, has Down syndrome, and we received a prenatal diagnosis because we thought we wanted to be prepared. The Switched at Birth episode offers a much more complex thought process than we experienced, through characters who say what they think is right, no matter the ugliness or ignorance of those thoughts.

They debate multiple what-ifs. None are positive.

My hope is that because the show manages to spotlight so many myths about having a child with Down syndrome, real education — and thus mindset shifts — will take place.

Not one of the characters conflicted on the show truly arrives at the right answer, because no one can predict any unborn child’s future.

Our minds don’t consider a child born with the worst mouth an orthodontist has ever seen (my parents didn’t). Our minds don’t consider the cost of raising a child who has no motivation to keep a job, pay bills or help take out the trash because he is in your basement playing video games at the age of 28. Our minds equally don’t consider the possibility of giving birth to a gifted child who will excel at every expensive extracurricular activity known to man, requiring global travel (cha-ching) and Ivy League tuition (cha-ching, cha-ching).

Sure, if your unborn child has heart issues, which some babies born with Down syndrome do have, then you may have a future of medical bills.

Our Charlie is healthy as a horse and in some ways, our easiest child. He doesn’t hold grudges. He doesn’t sulk or fixate on something that hasn’t gone his way. That extra chromosome doesn’t come with rose-colored glasses, but he doesn’t dwell. He sees the best in people, refusing to consider their frowns are anything more than a resting expression prior to being greeted by Charlie.

Should you make a decision about continuing a pregnancy based on speculation and pessimism? How many pregnancies would continue if that were the litmus test?

Raising children — minus qualifiers like extra chromosomes or poor eyesight or a speech impediment or hair that will tangle in knots during the night and require dedicated, delicate combing time each and every morning of a childhood — is hard and expensive, and you shouldn’t dive into the fertility pool if you’re going to start placing conditions on the outcome.

What guarantees does a parent have about the child he or she has conceived? The answer is: none.

My Charlie has been the most incredible gift for my husband and me. Having Charlie has changed our lives in ways I never could have dreamed. This stubborn, full-of-personality, blond-headed little boy has given my life a real purpose. He gave my interest in writing a passion to write about. He tests my patience every day.

Just like our other two children.

What price would we have paid if we chose to abort him?

More: October is Down syndrome Awareness Month: Moms share most maddening myths

For me, all lives have value. I’m still pro-choice and believe a woman should be able to make her own decisions about her body, and I cringe at state efforts to ban abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis.

But for me, abortion was not a choice because I wanted my beautiful, imperfect baby regardless of the degree or visibility of his imperfections.

Frankly, we got a pretty perfect deal out of the whole thing. Regardless of the storyline’s outcome, I hope Switched with Birth‘s thorough exploration of this sensitive topic opens minds — and hearts.

Watch the Switched at Birth cast discuss the controversial storyline, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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