Brave mum shares story of having twins with Down syndrome
MEET the 'Goofball Brothers' - the incredibly rare twins with Down syndrome who are guaranteed to make you smile.
Mum Julie McConnel, 45, from Nampa, Idaho, USA, already had four children when she fell pregnant for a fifth time last August.
She and her husband Dan, 46, had hoped to give their three-year-old son Andy a little sister, but instead fell pregnant with twin boys, Charlie and Milo.
Because of Julie's age, she knew that the likelihood of having multiples or a child with Down syndrome would be greater, but she never expected both to happen.
She admits she was distraught when she learned the news Charlie and Milo had the condition - and even considered putting them up for adoption, fearing that she and her husband didn't have the capacity to care for two children with special needs.
Now Julie's sharing her story to show others that having a child with special needs isn't as scary as they may think and her 'Goofball Brothers' - named after a sketch in the film The Wedding Singer - are proof of that.
She said: "You can have expectations of how life is going to be, but it might not pan out the way you imagined.
"Now that I have Charlie and Milo, I understand that and I have more compassion that I ever had before.
"They're not the result of a bad lifestyle choice I made, or a reflection of race or economics or where you live in the world and I hope that by sharing our story I can open people's eyes a bit.
"Everywhere we go, people love the boys because they're special, but I know this won't always be the case when they're older and it hurts to think about."
"I want people to see that there are people out there who are different, but it doesn't make them any less valuable.
"They're just the way they're supposed to be."
When Julie met Dan, she already had three older kids from a previous marriage: Gabrielle, 22, Carson, 17, and Hailey, 15.
Dan had never had children of his own, so when the pair married in 2010, they decided to have one together.
But even after having Andy, they knew that one wasn't enough and thought they'd try to give him a little sister.
Still, Julie's age meant that things wouldn't necessarily go as planned.
According to the US National Down syndrome Society, by the time a woman is 40 years old, her chances of having a baby with Down syndrome are 1 in 100. But the chances of having non-identical twins like Milo and Charlie is nearly 14 in a million.
Julie said: "As women get older, our eggs start firing off willy-nilly, so we weren't too surprised to learn that we were having twins.
"We also knew that our chances of having a baby with Down syndrome were higher, so we decided to do pre-natal testing at 11 weeks, where they can tell you with 99 per cent accuracy whether your child has Down syndrome.
"The test came back positive, but they couldn't tell us if it was one or both of the boys, so we decided to do an amniocentesis at 15 weeks, where they go through the abdomen with a needle and take a DNA sample from the amniotic sac.
"It's invasive, but we wanted to know what we were dealing with.
"The procedure was nerve-racking and the ultrasound already showed several problems, including spots on their hearts and extra fluid build-up, so we weren't that surprised when we received the news two weeks later that both of the boys had Down syndrome.
"Still, it was a terrible day and the months afterwards were the most stressful and agonising time in our lives."
Because Julie and Dan are in their 40s, they feared that they were too old to care for two boys with special needs. Having already had four children, Julie knew that she couldn't live with termination, so instead the couple considered adoption.
With the help of the National Down syndrome Adoption Network, they found a loving family who would raise the boys … but the couple wavered at the thought and spent months wrestling with the idea and putting off the paperwork.
In the meantime, Julie and Dan started educating themselves on what their life would be like if the decided to keep the twins.
Julie said, "We wanted to do our due diligence, so we connected with the local Down syndrome association.
"They were hosting a picnic, so we went and met with some wonderful families who shared their experiences with us. It was hard for me to hear it all when I was pregnant, but I've learned exactly what they told me … which is that it's not scary.
"You love your kids no matter what. When we finally decided that we weren't going to let our fear stand in our way, it was easy to make our decision."
At the start of her third trimester, Julie and Dan officially decided that they were going to keep their boys and began preparing for their arrival by reading every book they could get their hands on and making sure they had two of everything.
The boys were born at 37 and a half weeks and apart from an initial health scare with Milo, the boys had a pretty smooth start to life.
Upon seeing them, Julie knew instantly that she made the right decision in keeping them.
She said: "My heart came out of my chest when I saw them. I was so smitten. They reached out and grabbed my heart and they just looked like perfect little babies.
"Our other kids are so protective of them and Andy, our three-year-old, loves introducing his twins to everyone. He even carries around two dolls with him."
"It's hard to imagine life without them, but I think I'd miss them every day if we had decided not to keep them.
"They have such big personalities, but they're so different. If Charlie bunks his head, he is emotionally destroyed, but if Milo does then he gets mad and yells. He love the scream.
"There's no end to how entertaining they are. They both love being goofy … which is why we call them the Goofball Brothers, like from the film The Wedding Singer."
But while everyone who meets the boys is smitten with them, Julie admits that she worries how people will treat them as they get older.
She said: "My biggest fear is that they may be mistreated, ridiculed, or rejected.
"People can be mean out of ignorance, but if you slow down and put away the image in your mind of what normal or perfect is, you can experience so much more.
"I want them to grow up and have friends and I want them to be appreciated and understood.
"I know not everyone will feel that way towards them, but I also feel grateful that we live in a world where people with Down syndrome have more opportunities than they've ever had and as a mum I hope they'll find something to do that they love."
Julie and Dan plan to send the twins to a typical school when they get older, where they can make friends, be a part of the mainstream community, and be included in every way possible.
But for now, mum and dad are cherishing every moment with the little bubs and celebrating all their milestones, just as they have with their other kids.
Julie said, "We're enjoying what we're learning from them. I had no idea what we had in these two when I was pregnant, but I'm so grateful we chose to find out. They're the bomb!
"If you had everything the way you chose it to be, you'd miss out on a lot of cool stuff and a lot of richness."