FROM the colour of our eyes to how fast our toenails grow is mostly down to bits of protein suspended in each and every one of our cells. These bits of proteins form genes which are, in turn, chained and densely packaged, millions and millions of them, into structures called chromosomes.
A fertilized human egg that could potentially be implanted and grow in the womb as a baby is a mass of chromosomes. Typically, half of these chromosomes in this fertilized egg comes from the mother, half from the father. In the case of a baby born with Downs Syndrome there is an extra copy of a specific chromosome, the twenty-first chromosome.
This extra chromosome is the common thread in all people with Down Syndrome.
Since genes form chromosomes which, ultimately determine a good portion of our appearance, the presence of this extra chromosome accounts for the common physical traits Down Syndrome children and adults share. Traits such as slanted eyes, a larger than typical space between the big toe, shorter than average stature and yes, even their intellectual challenges.
However, while the presence of this extra chromosome results in the presentation of certain identifiable, common traits it does not and cannot suppress the manifestation of others stemming from the other forty-six chromosomes that form part of a person with Down’s genome – the complete set of genes a person possesses. A person with Down Syndrome is still clearly black or white as an obvious example. They still have their unique laugh or favoured food or favourite person. The gene interactions that help determine these three things might not be easy to identify as those the scientists have been able to study on chromosome-21 for decades and can, as a result, definitely attribute to the entire subset of the population with Downs Syndrome but they are there.
Gene variation is what helps make a person unique and special. And people with Down Syndrome are no different. Appreciating this is central not only to our understanding and acceptance of these individuals in our lives and in society but to our fully-abled fellow citizens as well. Our genes may form the basis of our appearance but they are not the sum total of who a person is. This is no less true for people with Down Syndrome.