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Home  >  Family and Community  >  Family Collections  >  Templeton
Willy and Joseph
By Willy Templeton

I don't even really think about being a single dad. It's just kind of a part of life.

My son Joseph has Down Syndrome. He is 15 years old, does not talk, but he's very healthy and very strong. Initially you would think that raising a special needs child would be more of a challenge than raising a normal child -- but actually, he's probably less of a challenge, in that he has a very simple, routine lifestyle, and he has a good disposition about him.


Communication between us is rarely a problem. When you're around somebody a lot, you just kind of learn how to communicate in a variety of ways. Sometimes it's just a verbal sound he makes, or a look, or if he's grabbing towards something. It's almost as though I can read his mind.

Joseph at age 5 with Willy.
If there is a communication problem, it's when Joseph can't effectively get his point across. That's probably the most frustrating thing about communicating with a special needs child who can't talk, when they really want something, but they do not know how to explain it.

But since I understand his routine, I can usually guess what he wants. For example, he likes to play with rubber bands, so if he's looking at a certain area, I know he's looking for a rubber band. He also has a couple of favorite toys like his shovel that he plays around with or little tools, plastic tools. But, last night, there was something he wanted. He wanted me to look under his bed, and I looked under the bed and I couldn't find it, and trying to figure out what he wants is kind of challenging. But really, that happens even between people who speak; they don't communicate what they want, and then there's a frustration.

Videos, Songs, and Books

Something that's very important to Joseph is music. There's a Wee Sing series of songs that has a nice rhythm and it seems like Joseph is really attuned to this. Disney has put out videos with songs that he likes too. First he just liked the song videos, then he gained interest in sitting through the longer, full-length cartoons, such as The Aristocats, or other hour-and-a-half movies. There are usually books that are published along with the videos, so the books he has are usually related specifically to his songs -- the Wee Sing series -- or to his Disney cartoons. Now, he's starting to go beyond cartoons to where we're looking at the goofball comedies that Disney used to do, such as "The Love Bug" and programs like that.

The kind of books and magazines that Joseph takes an interest in are probably the magazines that I look at. As it turns out, we're doing some work on the house, so I'm looking at a lot of magazines with remodeling tips. I notice that when I'm lying on the bed to read, Joseph will crawl right beside me to look at the pictures of the rooms. I think he may be able to relate to the spatial aspects of it.

Stories Through Pictures

Joseph and Willy at the airport.
Once Joseph and I flew down to Seattle. We rented a car and drove around, and I went to visit one of my former professors from the University of Washington. At her house, we went into the living room, and my professor had a picture on her wall of a house covered in snow. Joseph -- who was quite young at the time -- looked up, and he understood the snow in the picture and he pointed at it, communicating, "That's where we're from."

In school, since he can't speak, and he cannot write, Joseph has what they call a storyboard. It's a large two-foot by two-foot board with various pictures of activities on it -- it might have a picture of a milkshake or a picture of washing hands -- and Joseph can point to the pictures to communicate. There is now technology available for storyboards that say the word when you press the picture.

Joseph uses some signs, but the interesting thing with Joseph is that he understands humor. I think that's kind of a sophisticated sense of intelligence. He also knows how to use the system to his advantage. For example, he knows the sign for "potty," so if he's in a situation that he doesn't want to be in, he can sign, "I need to go to the restroom" to get out of the situation, knowing that I will respond to that.

The other quality he has is this sense of humor where he tries to play a trick on somebody, and when he does he kind of giggles. He doesn't speak, but he does laugh. His teacher knows he has this crooked little smile when he's up to something.

I'm Proud that He's My Son

When Joseph was born, I remember when the doctor came in and said that there was probably something wrong, and it was almost devastating. It's hard to explain, but I didn't know how to deal with it. There was a time, within the first days of his life, where I just kind of wondered. I was really crushed. After a few days, I just accepted it. "This is reality. This is a reality, and I have no power over it." And so I dealt with it. A lot of times I wondered, "Why did this happen?" And then other times I thought, "I don't even know how to deal with this."

But in many ways, later on, I realized that perhaps I have the personality where I could deal with this more so than other people, in that, I'm not very demanding. I tend to let things go. I really don't have any expectations of Joseph, other than for him to live a life and to be happy. It's not one of these things where I think, "Oh, I've got to make sure he learns to work at this, or do that to be a productive member of society." From my point of view, Joseph can just kind of live and enjoy his life and that is fine.

We deal with it day by day, and I just don't even really worry about a lot of things. Now, I'm the rational person here, and the responsibility for setting up the house and taking care of him ends up with me. He will never be able to take care of himself, and that's fine. I've accepted that, and that's fine, so it's just pretty much a day-by-day thing of enjoying life.

One thing I always like to tell Joseph is that I'm very proud of him and I'm proud that he's my son.

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About the Author: Willy Templeton is the director of Native Student Services at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was born and raised in Anchorage. His mother is of Inupiaq and Swedish descent, and his father is of English, Cajun French, and Caddo Indian descent. Willy did his undergraduate work at Anchorage Community College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and holds a Master?s Degree of Public Administration from University of Washington. He lives with his son in Anchorage.

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