5 Life Lessons My Uncle With Down Syndrome Taught Me

by Deirdre McAndrew

I was lucky enough to be born into a loud, huge, crazy, Irish family. We have just about every high school stereotype among us: the athlete, the artist, the brain, the beauty, the thespian and the comedian.

Different from the divided lunch tables of high school, though, we are all accepting of our differences, strengths and weaknesses. We have our Uncle Luke to thank for this accepting mindset we all inherited.

Now 5 feet tall and 33 years old, Uncle Luke was born with Down syndrome. Despite his height and IQ, he is larger than life in so many ways.

Uncle Luke is the baby of seven children and the uncle to nineteen nieces and nephews — he does a pretty awesome job at it, too.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that causes delays in physical and intellectual development in people who are born with 47 chromosomes instead of 46.

While Uncle Luke's extra chromosome caused him to grow up differently than most, his differences have provided him many talents and gifts, which is common in the Down syndrome community. Uncle Luke knows more about our family genealogy than almost anyone.

He practices the piano in preparation for numerous performances and recitals and can tell you the name of any actor in almost any movie or play.

While I sometimes can't understand him, it usually isn't because of his compromised speech, but because he quoted a movie I haven't seen or misplaced his hearing aid and can't even hear himself.

Uncle Luke experienced high school and even went on to attend Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where he got a taste of the college life.

He is now employed and lives in beautiful a group home. There, he cooks, cleans, shops, exercises and always makes time to relax.

Uncle Luke and other people with Down syndrome are more similar to us than they are different.

Down syndrome is measured on a spectrum and people who have it range from high functioning, like Uncle Luke, to low functioning, which calls for individuals to be dependent on their family members and caretakers.

Since Uncle Luke is high functioning, he leads a very independent life, but he still needs to be reminded to shave his Elvis Presley-inspired side burns and to charge his cell phone.

The typical physicality of people who have Down syndrome is short in stature with almond-shaped eyes, a flattened profile, a large tongue within a small mouth, a single crease across the palm and low muscle tone, which requires extensive physical therapy and strengthening.

While alike in physical features, one individual with Down syndrome can differ greatly from the next.

My Nana fought for equal opportunities for Uncle Luke in the school district, with the goal to benefit her son and other disabled children within their community.

His abilities are inspirational. He can outplay us on the piano and out-peddle some of us on a beach cruiser tricycle. He even managed to take one of the prettiest girls in his high school to the senior prom.

Uncle Luke has led many of our family members to study special education, get involved with organizations like Best Buddies and the Special Olympics and inform others about the joy he has added to our lives.

A few years ago, we decided to share the precious moments with the world through a Twitter account, @UncleLukeisms. Our initial intention was to get as many followers as possible to reach our end goal of getting Uncle Luke to star on "The Ellen Show."

We still feel it would be awesome, but we continue to run this account simply to brighten people's days with his humor and insight. There are so many reasons why my family members are thankful for Uncle Luke, but here are just a few:

Thank you for teaching us how to appreciate life.

Life is so precious and Uncle Luke is always sure to remind us of it.

He can make a play at a local theatre feel like a sold-out Broadway production. He can make chips and salsa feel like a five-star meal. He can make our beloved beach house feel like The Ritz Carlton in Aruba.

You can make his day with hot chocolate from the 7-Eleven or a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. His love for simplicity makes all of us appreciate the little things.

Thank you for teaching us to always celebrate.

In Uncle Luke's mind, there's always a reason to have a party. It is important to my family to celebrate what is good, whether it's someone's life, a birthday, a holiday or simply a weekend where we can all gather together.

In addition to partying, Uncle Luke always has a reason to look fabulous, which, to him, means wearing his Prince Charming costume to Christmas dinner (even if Nana tells him to do otherwise).

Thank you for teaching us the importance of family.

Uncle Luke always looks forward to a phone call or visit with family. He even means well when he leaves us voicemails along the lines of, "Hey, it's Luke! Call me when I get home!"

He has taught us that we should not feel like we have to spend time with our family, but that we should want to. It is the simple love and affection Uncle Luke shows that helps us remember: Family is what keeps us chugging along every day.

Thank you for teaching us that some things just simply do not matter.

Uncle Luke's outlook reminds us to surround ourselves with people we enjoy, to do things we want to do and to relax when necessary. There is never a bad time to have milk and cookies while watching "The Little Mermaid" for the 300th time in Uncle Luke's world.

Thank you for teaching us the importance of always being yourself.

The most important thing Uncle Luke has taught us thus far is to always be yourself.

He taught us that if your girlfriend gets mad at you for wearing a Mountain Dew t-shirt on a dinner date, you should do it anyway if it makes you happy. He taught us that it is a good idea to pretend to drown in a waveless bay and get rescued by the lifeguard if you think she is cute.

He taught us that belting out "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables" in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the windows open on the Garden State Parkway is enjoyable for everyone, even if you have a terrible voice.

Through all of his hilarious life decisions and silliness, Uncle Luke has taught us that it is always okay to be yourself.

Most importantly, thank you, Uncle Luke, for being the glue that keeps our big, crazy family together. Thank you for teaching us to work with what we have and to roll with the punches. As Uncle Luke once said,

Sometimes I hate having Down syndrome, But everyone's got something, like you... you have asthma.