Classifying Patrick

March 26, 2003

My friend Patrick is not a child: he is thirty-four years old. He has a small but spotless apartment, a Siamese cat, and a job that he loves. He pays taxes, volunteers at the Humane Society, and wouldn’t think of littering. His friends are diverse and fascinating, and he has plans with them nearly every night.

Most of the time, Patrick is a genuinely happy man. He has one source of frustration in his life, however: he wishes that more people would see him as an adult. He knows that he has limitations, just like anyone else with Down syndrome. But he is a grown man, with many adult responsibilities, and even those who know him well sometimes seem to forget that.

Patrick’s sense of humour is a little unsophisticated. Like most kids, he laughs a great deal and can find pleasure in common things. His intelligence may be below the average, but he has found that strong and persistent happiness that many people spend their lives seeking. Patrick’s sunny demeanour makes him a joy to know: his frequent laugh may have the deep baritone timbre of a man’s, but it is as infectious as that of a baby.

Patrick is considered to be quite “?high-functioning’, but in many ways he does remind me of a child. He is slow to learn new concepts, and he lacks the insight that most adults have. When he is learning something new, it is important that the person teaching him explains the concept thoroughly. The ramifications of a procedural change at work, for example, must be explained in careful detail, because Patrick will not realize them intuitively. Once a change is explained, he needs practice to master it. He may lapse into doing things the old way out of habit, but only for a day or two. Like a toddler whose routine has been upset, Patrick requires a little time to adjust. Once he understands the new way, however, he will adhere to it consistently. Few of his “?normal’ co-workers can be counted upon to be so reliable.

Patrick has been living by himself for eight years. His lifestyle is completely sane, but a little unconventional; he often reminds me of a boy whose parents have left him alone for the first time. He jumps on the couch with joy when his favourite hockey team wins, he collects banana stickers (which are plastered all over his refrigerator and kitchen cabinets), and he frequently takes his cat for walks on a leash. He doesn’t like to cook or wash dishes, so he lives on cold foods of the sort most people reserve for snacks: fruit, cereal, chocolate milk, and peanut-butter sandwiches are his favourites. It may seem childish to some, but in fact Patrick’s diet is healthier than that of most men his age.

It’s true that Patrick is childlike in some ways, but all of them seem superficial to me. In reality, He is very much an adult, and is more responsible than many “?normal’ adults his age. He is often frustrated (and I am appalled) by the fact that he is denied the respect and basic rights that most adults enjoy. There are few formal limitations placed upon developmentally disabled adults in Canada, but Patrick experiences informal restrictions every day. When he goes for a drink with his co-workers on payday, it’s not unusual for a well-meaning bartender to hesitate, or even refuse, to serve him alcohol- just as they would if he was underage. There’s always a look of uncertainty on the face of the ticket clerk when Patrick buys a ticket for an R-rated movie. He once giggled and blushed as he confessed to me that he had been on a date the night before (with a lovely woman his own age, who also has Down syndrome). While I was delighted for him, most of the others who knew about this were aghast. Despite the fact that Patrick is a grown man with the same natural desire for romantic companionship as any other man his age, it is expected that due to his intellectual limitations, he should forgo that part of his life. Patrick’s accomplishments are forgotten in these situations; he is seen simply as a child in a grown man’s body. But despite the minor similarities, he is not a child, and there is no reason that he should be treated as one.

Patrick will never write a book or get a university degree. He’ll probably never even get his driver’s licence. But there are many things of which he has proven himself capable, and he is in every way a contributing member of society. In recent decades, Canadians have made great strides toward the acceptance of developmentally delayed people in our society. The final step we must take is perhaps the hardest one of all: the recognition that Patrick, and others like him, are not children at all.

Heather Wrigley recently abandoned a safe, but dull, Human Resources career to finish her Athabasca University B.Sc. in Human Science. When she’s not studying, she volunteers at the local Children’s Hospital and at the Women’s Health Centre. She also loves to garden, bike, drum, fish, read, and take long walks with her Border Terrier. She lives in Calgary.