When actor/writer Cullen Douglas isn’t in front of a camera or on a stage, he and his wife Rachel are raising —and homeschooling —two teenage boys, 19-year-old Gabriel and 14-year-old Cameron. Gabriel was born with Down Syndrome and recently beat a cancer diagnosis. We sat down with Douglas—recognizable from recurring roles on Agents of SHIELD and Scandal—to talk about what it’s like raising a son with a disability alongside a son without a disability.
Cullen Douglas On Raising A Special Needs Child
Q: What has it been like parenting a son with Down Syndrome and cancer?
Douglas: Gabe has never been defined by Down syndrome. It’s just a part of who he is. My wife and I quickly learned to get out of our own way and let him teach us how to be the kind of parents he needed. We also learned to go with the flow, which actually became our motto during his battle with Leukemia.
Q: How were you able to manage that with your work as an actor and writer?
Douglas: My agents were incredibly supportive of me during that time. I had to make some tough choices. I couldn’t imagine getting on a plane to fly overseas for a job knowing that I would just be waiting for that text, call, or email from home saying “Gabe’s gone back into the hospital.” I wouldn’t be serving the job very well, and I’d feel completely helpless on the other side of the world. So, that was a challenge, but the most important thing was getting the family through the cancer journey: getting Gabe healthy again, and making sure Cameron felt loved and supported and that his needs were being met.
Q: Has it been difficult for Cameron with all of the attention on his brother?
Douglas: Cameron has had an amazing journey of his own. Being the younger brother of an individual with a disability has never been a huge issue, but then suddenly cancer became a part of the scenario. Rachel and I tried to make sure that there were opportunities for Cameron along the way, that he felt just as loved and just as special and didn’t feel like, “Gosh, I should have gotten cancer, too, so I could get this kind of attention.”
Q: How did you and your wife stay strong through it all?
Douglas: We were honest with each other and said, “This cancer is going to beat us all up, but we are going to be stronger than this. Our marriage is going to get shaken, and we are going to get stressed, but we’re bigger than this.” You have to work that much harder to make sure to find time, to find the moments, to just be able to sit in the same room and read the paper together.
Q: What do those of us who’ve had no experience with Down syndrome need to know?
Douglas: I’d say you should deal with Gabe or any other person in his position in the same way you would deal with anybody else. Don’t let the typical physical features that are associated with Down syndrome be any sort of indicator that you have to talk down to Gabriel or talk slower to Gabriel or direct any question for him to Rachel or myself or even to his younger brother.
Q: Why did you and your wife decide to homeschool your kids?
Douglas: We had always talked about how great it would be to be able to go do a play for six weeks or shoot a film on location and be able to bring the whole family with us. Along the way we discovered the best way both our kids learned was through the individualized attention homeschooling offers. They have become true independent learners.
Q: Does homeschooling make it hard for your boys to develop a social life outside the home?
Douglas: People often assume that homeschooled children spend their entire day at home. That’s not the case at all. They don’t go to a central location five days a week, but they are out and about on field trips, volunteering, attending site classes—all with other homeschooled kids, so they have a peer group. Gabe had prom last year on the Queen Mary and is going again this year.
Q: It sounds like such a gift to have all this family time.
Douglas: When things get hectic, Rachel and I have to remind ourselves of that. We all are so incredibly lucky that if we don’t have meetings or classes, we can have lunch together. I can go for a walk mid-morning with Cameron and Gabe. We’re not bound by the same rules found in a typical brick and mortar school.
Q: Before we let you go, we have to ask … what is it like working on Scandal?
Douglas: It was a joy. Everyone is so incredibly grounded. Egos are all checked at the door. My dear friend, Executive Producer, Tom Verica sets the open tone. Jeff Perry, Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn—they’re all team players. I’m very lucky they asked me to come play.
You can follow Cullen on Twitter @cullendoug.