Boy with Down syndrome becomes star
WHEN a recent clip from BBC's The Greatest Dancer went viral, featuring a British teenager Andrew, who is an incredible dancer and has Down syndrome, reactions were swift and strong.
Judge Cheryl Tweedy cried. Many were simply blown away by his talent. His mum, who endearingly refers to Andrew as "flat-footed" and "the plodder", said she was "beyond proud" of her boy.
But for a father and son double act in Brisbane, the clip inspired optimism. Rob, 46, and Elijah, 9, started their own YouTube channel, The Elijah and Crumpet Show in September 2018. Crumpet is a puppet, played by Elijah's dad, and Elijah interacts with him to entertain viewers.
"I found Andrew's dancing very moving," Rob says. "It was powerful to see him smashing expectations. He would've overcome more hurdles than most, but Andrew's a great role model for the whole community - not just people with a disability."
Could Elijah follow in Andrew's footsteps and take the world by storm? Rob has high hopes, but his main goal is that Elijah learns and enjoys himself: "Elijah absolutely loves singing and dancing, but his great strengths are his social skills and his memory. He likes being the fool to make people laugh."
From the very first show, Elijah's cheeky and playful personality is evident - he loves playing up to the camera. Elijah is clearly the star, but Crumpet sometimes happily guides him. "We've used Crumpet for many years," Rob says. "Elijah really related to Crumpet when he was learning to speak. He knows it's me now - but he'll engage with Crumpet as if it's a real monkey and can switch to it just being a puppet - he's a great actor!" Rob adds Crumpet is like a member of the family in addition to Elijah's mum and brother Thomas, 14. "He even comes on holiday with us - much to their annoyance!" Rob says.
Setting up the channel was a no-brainer once the benefits were added up. "Rehearsing and putting together the show is a great learning opportunity for Elijah - he has to remember the plan, practise and learn to stay on task," Rob says.
"Being a YouTuber is a socially-valued role, meaning others view Elijah in a positive light, which helps with inclusion. Seeing the shows give other kids the opportunity to strike up conversation with Elijah, which promotes friendships."
Not that he needs any help in that department; his popularity partly comes from him being a natural and charismatic leader, especially at his Scout group.
"He gets 15-year-olds doing star jumps at Scouts - he loves being in charge and telling people what to do!" Rob says.
Seeing Elijah's videos, Robs says, will also hopefully motivate and inspire other parents who may just be at the start of their journey.
"The show allows Elijah to show off what he can do, helping to break down misconceptions about people with disability" he says.
Like Andrew, Elijah loves to dance. He also dispels myths about disability and its limitations by doing advanced memory games - such as learning to pronounce the world's longest place name and speaking other languages like Japanese.
Elijah first said he wanted to "be a famous YouTuber" after he heard his brother Thomas express the same desire. "They have the normal jealousies and arguments of any siblings," Robs says. "But Thomas was old enough to understand what was going on and really support Elijah - showing his maturity."
Now, in addition to regular family activities like swimming lessons and the school run, Elijah wakes up his dad in the mornings wanting to make videos.
Rob has learnt as much as Elijah along the way. The first few videos were "a JVC propped up on a pile of books" - but now Rob has bought a proper Canon camera and learnt to use video editing software. He has also discovered how long editing takes: three hours to produce every five minutes. "There've been many long nights" he says.
Early intervention has been key to Elijah's development. "We have very high expectations," Rob says of he and his wife Virginia's hopes for Elijah. "We attended inclusion and social role courses early on. We believed that if we put the effort in with Elijah (just like we did Thomas) he'd maximise his potential. This included signing and reading from a young age."
The couple had heard "appalling stories" of parents of children with Down syndrome told by doctors they wouldn't read or write.
"We wanted to put out a positive story showing all the things you can do. Entertainment is the way we get deep into people's psyche proves what's possible," Rob says.
Elijah attends a regular school, which brings benefits to him and his classmates.
"Being surrounded by regular kids brings Elijah on so much faster. Through Elijah, other kids learn about people who are different," Rob says.
The couple didn't opt to have the initial pregnancy screening for Down syndrome, but testing later in Virginia's pregnancy showed a chromosomal abnormality that she was told may result in the baby requiring palliative care. After this shock, a Down syndrome diagnosis was a relief.
Rob says: "When it was confirmed as Down syndrome, we were happy with this outcome - it wasn't a life-threatening abnormality. We got as much information as we could and were really looking forward to welcoming this little baby into our lives."
Their little baby is fast growing into a young man - and potential superstar. As we talk, Elijah comes in and says he wants "Elijah and Crumpet posters around the world, so everyone will come and watch us on TV".
I ask Elijah what other hopes he has for the future. He says: "I want to invent a robot to help mum with ironing, and I want to be the Greatest Showman (his favourite movie)."
It's clear he's well on his way.
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @garynunn1