My Downs boy Seb is an M&S model
Caroline White's son has been signed up for a Christmas photoshoot for Marks & Spencer. Celine Naughton hears an inspirational tale of our changing attitudes to disability
Caroline White will never forget the day her first child, Seb, was born with Down Syndrome. "It should have been the happiest day of my life and it was the worst," she says. "I knew nothing about the condition and, like many people, I had outdated views of what it meant."
Weeks later she saw an advertisement featuring lots of happy, smiling families at a picnic. She scoured the picture to see children like Seb and couldn't find any. "It was as if families like ours didn't exist and that added to my feeling of isolation and difference.
"I went through a grieving process for the baby I thought I was having. Then, one day when I saw a grown man with Down Syndrome shuffling along beside his mother, I went home and cried.
"My husband Simon, who had put up with me being bonkers for eight weeks, said: 'If you can't accept it, how do you expect other people to?'
"As Seb started engaging, I began to see him as a person, not a syndrome. Now I would give anything to be able to hold him as a newborn again and enjoy every moment instead of worrying unnecessarily."
Caroline has made it her mission to challenge stereotypes about Down Syndrome and make people with the condition more visible in society.
During a conference run by the Down Syndrome Association in her hometown of Bath in the UK, she came across a baby clothes company, Jojo Maman Bébé, and sent them an email. "If you'd like a model for your catalogue, I've got one!" she wrote. The company took her up on her offer and photographed Seb for its catalogue.
She then posted a picture of Seb on the Marks and Spencer Facebook page saying how much she would like to see similar pictures in their ads.
The company responded quickly and Seb was signed up for a photoshoot which will feature in this year's M&S Christmas magazine. With a readership of nearly four million, this delivers the kind of audience Caroline wanted.
"The response to Caroline's post on our Facebook page was amazing," says an M&S spokesperson. "We always look for kids who have fun in front of the camera and Sebastian was a pleasure to work with."
Some people remarked that Marks and Spencer chose Seb only because he looked cute, to which his mum replies: "Yes, he is cute – that's the whole point! People with Down Syndrome share certain characteristics, but they look more like their parents than each other."
Two years ago, Caroline and Simon had a second child, Dominic, who doesn't have Down Syndrome, and, while his developmental milestones have been normal whereas Seb's are seen as remarkable achievements, she says the two boys are not that different.
"Seb is a loving child, but no more so than Dominic," she says. "One day he is Mister Cuddles; the next he's determined and strong-willed. He loves football and The Muppets and he has a wicked sense of humour.
"As for the future; I would like both my sons to be independent, polite, kind and caring. I have concerns about how capable Seb will be as an adult and, while I hope Dominic will be close, I don't want him to feel tied.
"I try not to look too far ahead though, because when Seb was born, I worried about what he'd be like at four years of age, and look at him now – he's fabulous!"