Mum Caroline White is thrilled her son Seb has landed a modelling role for M&S – and hopes it will change the public’s attitude to Down’s syndrome. Her pride today is a far cry from the “grief” she plunged into when told baby Seb has the condition. As she realises, Caroline’s first reaction was the product of commonly held attitudes and prejudices.
For the first few months of his life she struggled to see past miserable images of mental disability .
But as Seb’s sunny personality began to shine through, it dawned on loving Caroline and her husband Simon that their son was not so different from any other child.
Now the world can see why they are so proud – because angelic Seb, four, landed a plum modelling job with Marks & Spencer last month’
The boy will be the face of children’s clothing in the company’s Christmas magazine.
Caroline, 39, hopes it will help change people’s attitudes to disabled children, and in particular those with Down’s. She admitted she knows only too well what those views are.
“If I had known Seb had Down’s when I was pregnant I might have made a decision not to carry on with the pregnancy,” she recalled. “And it wouldn’t have been an informed decision.
“But he’s just like any other little boy who loves sausages and ice cream and his scooter. He also just happens to have Down’s syndrome.”
Product manager Caroline became pregnant in June 2007, two months after her wedding to Simon, 36, a manager at a toiletries company .
Seb arrived just a few weeks prematurely in February 2008.
At first a midwife voiced concerns because Seb was floppy and struggling to feed. And Caroline said: “A paediatrician said he was going to run some tests and mentioned a chromosomal abnormality but we didn’t know what that meant.”
Caroline searched on the web for problems the midwife and doctor had noted. Every single one led to the same result – Down’s syndrome.
“I can still remember feeling hot and sick,” Caroline said. “I phoned Simon to tell him but I can’t even remember what I said. I was in such a state.
“All I know is that he was very calm and strong. He always has been immensely supportive.”
There were tests and the family went back to the hospital to hear the results. Caroline said: “We were ushered into a little private room. I knew then it couldn’t be good news.
“Then the doctor told us, ‘I’m sure it’s no surprise that Sebastian has Down’s syndrome.’ But it was an enormous surprise.”
The medic gave them a pile of leaflets about the condition.
Caroline said: “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want leaflets. I can’t cope with this. I didn’t sign up for this. It can’t be happening.
“Seb was asleep in his cot wearing this polar bear suit that was much too big for him and he just looked absolutely gorgeous.
“It was so confusing because I felt the most intense love for him and I wanted to protect him. But at the same time I felt so cheated.
“I knew I wanted him but I did not want the Down’s.”
Simon said: “It was a huge shock as we hadn’t had time to plan, research or get used to the idea that he had the condition. We had never known anyone with Down’s or how it would affect Seb or us as a family.
“We tried to read as much as we could about it.
“I always knew we would do whatever was best for him and us. It just took some time to adjust to the news.”
Caroline found it much harder to take it in her stride.
She said: “In the early days I would look at him and all I would see would be characteristics of Down’s. The second I woke up I’d remember it and think, ‘Is this real?’ And it would hurt from morning to night. For me this was part of the grieving process I plunged into.
First ad shot “Strangers would peer into the pram as they do with any baby but because I felt awkward I’d blurt out, ‘He has Down’s, you know?’ Then it would be really uncomfortable .
“But as the weeks went on it lessened. When Seb was four months old the hurt started to lift.
“It was around the same time that he started to give something back and engage with me.
“He started cooing and moving about. We could see he was really determined. He was desperately trying to roll over and wouldn’t give up.”
They threw a big party to celebrate Seb’s first birthday.
Caroline said: “I was really guilty over how I’d felt about him. I was sad that I’d never get that time back.
“Even now I would give anything to hold him as a newborn baby for just 10 minutes feeling the way I do now instead of how I was.”
At 18 months Seb said his first words – cat and dog. He started toddling with the help of a walker.
And he became a doting big brother when baby Dominic arrived in September 2010. “Seb was very sweet with him,” Caroline said. “And he was really helpful – fetching nappies and muslins for me. But then he’d cuddle Dominic a bit too tight and lie on top of him.”
She finally came to terms with her son’s condition but Caroline knew the rest of society still had a problem about it. She said: “I saw a TV ad with all these families having a picnic. And I just knew that there wouldn’t be a family on there like mine. It just added to that feeling of difference and isolation.”
Earlier this year she heard baby clothing company JoJo Maman Bébé employed people with Down’s syndrome. She wrote to tell them how pleased she was.
“I enclosed a photo of Seb and said, ‘If you ever need a model, here’s one.’
“I thought there must be lots of kids starting school who are a bit different but you don’t see them represented.”
To her surprise the company took up her offer and Seb appeared in an ad.
Caroline then tried several big retailers but drew a blank and nearly gave up. Then she gave it one last try by posting Seb’s photo on M&S’s Facebook page.
She wrote: “He has striking, unusual features, charms the pants off everyone he meets and his little face is full of magic and mischief. So here’s the thing. He also happens to have Down’s syndrome.”
Hundreds of customers commented and Caroline got a call from the company for Seb to model for their magazine.
She said: “The Paralympics made people more comfortable with difference. The more you see it, the more normal it becomes. But when it comes to mental disability there’s a long way to go. People don’t accept it as much.”
This month Seb started in a mainstream school near their home in Bath. The proud parents have been told by the head he is settling in quickly – and learning.
Caroline said: “If I’d known he had Down’s when I was pregnant I might have considered a termination. How can you teach people that it’s OK? I hope that seeing children like Seb can help.”