We'll Paint the Octopus Red

February 17, 2018

In an octopus's garden, with you.


I'm not really sure what to say. It feels like it's aimed at a very specific audience, namely children who have just had a younger sibling born who has Down syndrome, which is a very small audience. I guess you could give it to a child if you were trying to explain what Down syndrome was. But basically the only thing says is what Down syndrome isn't. It doesn't say what it is.

There's a little girl who's the main character, and she's got a new baby brother, and she talks about all the fun things she can do with her baby brother when he gets older. Then the father finds out that the baby has Down syndrome, and she goes back to the list of things she imagined, trying to figure out which of those things he won't be able to do. "Can he play kickball with me?" "Well, yes, but it might be a little later than other kids." "Can he do X?" "Yes." "Can he do Y?" "Yes." So everything that she wants to do with him, he'll be able to do. One of the things she wants to do with him, oddly, is use a rubber octopus like a stamp to paint with. She's happy that she can do this, and they'll paint it red. And she just goes and sees her little brother, and that's the end. Afterwards, there's questions and answers, things like, "Can you catch Down syndrome?" "Will they always have Down syndrome?" And it talks about chromosomes a little bit, things like that, and other factual stuff. All people with Down syndrome are different, and they have different levels of ability in various things.

I'm not that familiar with the effects of Down syndrome, specifically, so I don't know how accurate this is. It says they're extra flexible, have eyes that slant upwards, small ears, small nose, and grow more slowly than other kids. It basically limits itself to physical differences, except to say that they tend to learn more slowly. It explains that grown-ups are sometimes sad when they hear the baby has Down syndrome because they're worried that they might need to spend extra time at the hospital or have to go back for an operation. I don't think that's the main reason why grown-ups are sad that their baby has Down syndrome.

I think grown-ups are sad when their babies have Down syndrome because of the intellectual disabilities that come with the disease. Their lives are going to be different in a lot of ways. They're going to have a lot of challenges that neurotypical people don't have. While some adults with Down syndrome are able to live on their own, some of them aren't. People are going to make fun of them. They're going to find it hard to understand the world around them, even as adults. And I think that would be a reason for somebody to legitimately be upset, thinking about the difficulties their child is going to encounter. In their day-to-day life, this child is going to have challenges that the parent did not expect, and envisioning your child struggling is not a positive thing. It's just like if your child had cerebral palsy or if your child were missing a leg. Life is going to be more difficult for them. It's reasonable to be upset by that at first. I hope the hypothetical sad parent is able to move on, but I think that's the root of why grown-ups are sad.

And the book just doesn't talk about the reality of that. Things are more difficult. Especially for the parents, and especially at the beginning. Yes, it's true that you'll be able to play with your brother in every way that was mentioned in the book, but there will be things that he will not be able to do, that you will be able to do. Some of those things will be because he has Down syndrome. That is unfair. And it is possibly politically incorrect, but it is true.


People with Down syndrome can do everything that anybody else can do.

Publication Year
  • 1998
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