By Susan Fawcett, PhD, RSLP
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #7: The Teen Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
“Selena Gomez is my girlfriend.” “Shawn Mendes is my brother.” “I did a triple backflip on my skateboard yesterday.”
The teachers and therapists at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation are regaled with tall tales on the regular. Since we all have dreams, aspirations, and goals – many of which never come to fruition – parents may struggle with striking a healthy balance between encouragement of dreams and what is realistically attainable for their teenagers with Down syndrome. Along a similar vein, parents often have concerns about teenagers who become too absorbed in the fantasy world associated with their favourite movies and TV shows.
What is “fantasyland” and why does this happen in people with Down syndrome?
Teenagers and young adults (and even sometimes older adults) with Down syndrome have a strong tendency to become enmeshed in fantasy worlds. For example, they may repeatedly watch certain scenes from favourite movies and then act them out, report that they know or are friends with certain celebrities, or participate in role play and/or self-talk alone in their rooms.
Experts in the field of mental health in people with Down syndrome have proposed that this development of a rich fantasy life may stem from their relative strength in visual memory (McGuire & Chicoine, 2006). In addition, the crossover between reality and fantasy may be developmentally appropriate for teens and adults with Down syndrome (for example, something akin to younger children’s belief in a tooth fairy). The authors point out this blurring of lines between reality and fantasy is not likely to indicate psychosis, which is a serious mental health diagnosis involving a person’s compromised relationship with reality. Psychosis, symptoms of which include hallucinations and delusions, is rare in individuals with Down syndrome.
Getting lost in fantasyland may be more likely when a teen is bored, or not given the right level of challenge at school. During the current pandemic, there may be an even higher risk due to teens’ lighter schedules, or a feeling of anxiety or sadness. How often do we all turn to the comfort and escape provided by TV when we feel this way?
Another possibility is that fantasy life may simply be the more enjoyable alternative for teens with Down syndrome much of the time. By the time they are teenagers, there is a large gap in the abilities of people with Down syndrome and their typically-developing peers. By this time, they may no longer have common interests with these peers, and may not be able to keep up in conversations. Meaningful social relationships may dwindle as a result. At this point, imagination, fuelled by movie characters, pop stars, and social media celebrities can take over.
This foray into fantasyland is likely also at play when we hear teenagers with Down syndrome express goals and dreams that are unrealistic. Having high expectations for people with Down syndrome is a good thing, and we all have dreams and goals that help us stay engaged and motivated. However, teens with Down syndrome often cling to aspirations that are not realistic or attainable. For example, they may express that they would like to marry Harry Styles or Mickey Mouse, or that they’d like to have jobs that may not be realistic for a person with an intellectual disability, such as being a teacher or a flight attendant.
Because we are caring people who are genuinely interested in what teens with Down syndrome have to say, parents, teachers, and therapists tend to smile, laugh, or express surprise when these fanciful ideas are communicated. At first, we may think these are cute or creative, and we inadvertently reinforce these wishful expressions. We often ask questions about these unrealistic dreams, because they are interesting, and because the teen seems passionate about them. All of this teaches the teen that expressing these wishes gets plenty of attention from adults. Too late, we start telling them, “That’s not going to happen!” By this time, the teens often have their hearts set, and we know how difficult it can be for people with Down syndrome to break free from ingrained interests and patterns of behaviour.
What behavioural changes should I watch out for?
There may be several symptoms or warning signs that your teen may be pulled too far into fantasyland. These include:
The Days of our Lives
In my years at DSRF, I have seen many detrimental effects in teens and adults with Down syndrome who spend too much time watching soap operas. Soap operas, or other similarly dramatic shows (possibly including many reality TV shows; e.g., consider “The Real Housewives of…” series), may be particularly appealing to people with Down syndrome due to the overly dramatic, almost cartoon-like, facial expressions, body language, and gestures performed by the characters. Many people with Down syndrome are highly empathetic and socially motivated with an ingrained flair for the dramatic. The problem is that “Days of Our Lives” is not a cartoon – the characters are clearly real people, enacting scenes in familiar places, with storylines that continue over months or years. All of this makes it harder for the teen to distinguish reality from fantasy.
The results of watching too much? At DSRF, we’ve seen re-enactments of scenes they’ve watched (slamming doors, yelling at coworkers or peers), and ordinarily calm teens and adults who have episodes of violence (kicking walls or punching peers). I would highly recommend limiting your teen’s viewing of soap operas, reality shows or any other show that depicts violence. At the very least, try to watch these with your teen, and debrief afterwards about the unreality of what they have just viewed.
What strategies can I use to help my teenager with Down syndrome stay clear of fantasyland?
What strategies can I use to help my teenager with Down syndrome have more realistic dreams and life goals?
I have always encouraged parents to have high expectations of their children with Down syndrome. But we all need to take care to ensure we bolster only those goals and dreams that are at an appropriate level. Actually achieving goals, or the small steps on the way to bigger goals, do wonders for self-esteem. And couldn’t all teens with Down syndrome use a self-esteem boost?
McGuire, D. & Chicoine, B. (2006). Mental wellness in adults with Down syndrome: A guide to emotional and behavioral strengths and challenges. Woodbine: Bethesda, MD.
*A new edition of this book has been published, and will soon be available for loan from DSRF’s resource library.
Please email Susan Fawcett if you have questions or concerns about your teen: firstname.lastname@example.org