My stepmom Gail has had a wide range of clients in her many years as a psychologist. But there’s one 3-year old kid she used to treat that she still holds close to her heart. His name is Ronnie and I’ve heard a lot about him over the years.
Gail describes Ronnie as the friendliest, happiest child she’s ever met, and his compassion knows no bounds. “If another child was sad or crying, he was the one who would go over and comfort them,” she tells Babble. “I’ve met lots of kids in the past 25 years, but he stands out.”
I soon came to learn that Ronnie’s exuberant personality comes from his diagnosis. He was born with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder considered by many to be the opposite of autism. But he’s far from alone — roughly 1 in 10,000 people worldwide are born with Williams, and about 30,000 people in the United States currently live with it.
While there are significant developmental and medical challenges associated with Williams syndrome, there is also one huge gift it brings to each child born with it: intense feelings of love and social ease when they meet anyone. Many kids also have a special affinity for music and possess advanced verbal skills. And while friendships can be difficult to maintain for those with the disorder, the positivity and openness they radiate is infectious.
While at a conference for Williams Syndrome Association 20 years ago, Gail tells me she was blown away by just how kind every single child was that she met.
“There was so much hugging and friendliness,” she tells me. “It’s like they’d known each other their whole lives. Their exuberance about life is just remarkable.”
I was lucky enough to witness this firsthand when I met 21-year old Morgan Starkman earlier this week. Morgan was also born with Williams syndrome, and though its many challenges can be complicated at times, her family’s deep support has helped her navigate living in a world where she feels a surplus of fondness for every person in it.
“I love them so much,” Morgan tells Babble. “I just can’t live without them.”
Her mother Joanne Starkman cannot say enough amazing things about her daughter, who began making videos for Williams Syndrome Awareness Month on her Instagram page in May. Morgan even created one recent video that went viral, with over 1 million views and counting.
“She loves putting herself out there, and as a parent, I just want to support her,” Joanna shares. “I just think she’s a beautiful soul, and she’s inspiring to so many people on so many levels and in so many different ways.”
Morgan’s 19-year old brother Max couldn’t agree more, and says his sister encourages him every day to be more a more outgoing person.
“I feel like I’ve always looked up to Morgan in the way that she can just start a conversation with absolutely anybody,” he tells Babble. “She is just so free and easy going, and she’s one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. I haven’t always been that way — I’m a little shy at first. So it’s definitely awesome to see how people react to her.”
Joanne explains that some of the challenges Morgan faces include feeling stuck between her special needs environment and the rest of the world. Since she so easily taps into her emotions to communicate with others, it can sometimes feel tough to be placed in classes with special needs students who are struggling in those areas. And while Morgan often needs to learn the same skills as her classmates, she interprets them in a completely different way.
“She goes to school with a lot of kids who have autism and who are very different than she is socially,” says Joanne. “And what I’ve seen in Morgan as she has gotten older is she has so much tolerance for these other children. I feel like she lives her life with such grace and dignity and understanding. And I just think it continues to deepen as she gets older.”
Joanne says that she found some much-needed support in the larger Williams syndrome community when she first became a mother. And now, she wants to give that support back in a big way.
“I met other moms who had older children with Williams syndrome.” Joanne explains. “It was very inspiring to me to see these young adults. Now, I feel like I’m one of those mothers with a young adult … it’s my duty to support Morgan to be out there, because she inspires these other young mothers.”
She certainly does.