Imagine being able to see only the good in people. To be blind to differences, including lacking any hint of racial bias whatsoever. Everyone, to you, is a friend, and you have an honest interest in their interests, their desires, their hopes, their dreams. Yes, kindness and compassion are traits that most of us have — but most of us would be better served by exhibiting more often.
But there are some children for whom kindness and compassion are not simply personality traits. These children befriend everyone and anyone, and to an extreme. And they cannot control it. They have a condition called Williams Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a missing series of genes on a specific chromosome which occurs in one out of 7,500 newborns.
Children with Williams Syndrome appear different from the outset. They are overly fond of music and typically have slightly upturned noses; smaller, pointed teeth; and puffiness under their eyes — some say that they have an elf-like facial appearance. But even if you somehow miss this, you’ll almost certainly note how deeply and genuinely interested they are in you. For example, when Chris Cuomo of ABC News’ 20/20 visited a camp for kids with Williams Syndrome, he was “besieged by hugs and slaps on the back” and questioned about everything from what his favorite color and food were to whether he had met Barney the Dinosaur. (The linked-to page has a video segment from the 20/20 episode.)
Unfortunately, the world is not a sunny as these children’s dispositions. As most of us would agree, even these otherwise positive attributes have limits. A person who is overly compassionate may fall prey to a complicated confidence scam or otherwise befriend a stranger who has bad intentions. For these reasons, at a young age, children are taught about “stranger danger” and instructed not to speak with or travel with adults they do not know. But most children with Williams Syndrome exhibit none of this fear. They regularly approach strangers and address them as if these unknown people were their best friends, greeting them with hugs. Per the 20/20 report, in one study, a stranger wearing a dark hat and sunglasses entered a room with children present. The typically developing children avoided the man; those with Williams Syndrome started to speak with the man, with one even offering him a toy.
As the children grow into adults, life gets difficult. They disproportionally fall prey to scams and/or are taken advantage of by acquaintances, but those are still, on the whole, rare. More commonly, this extreme friendliness comes at a high, and somewhat ironic, cost. Instead of coming off as affable, people (especially adults) with Williams Syndrome are seen as socially awkward and hard to relate to — that is, these hyper-friendly people have a very hard time making friends.
Bonus fact: While children with Williams Syndrome are, as noted above, often described as elf-like, that actually may be backward. Some cultural anthropologists believe that the mythical elvish race is based on children who have Williams Syndrome. As the theory goes, Williams Syndrome predates its medical recognition by generations, and the Old English description of elves matches up well with a slightly exaggerated version of children with the disorder.
From the Archives: Laughing to Death: Another affliction which, on the surface, seems rather positive — but simply isn’t. At all.
Related: “The Strangest Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice,” the story of a girl with Williams Syndrome. Five stars on four reviews, available on Kindle. (The image above comes from the book’s cover.) Also, “Nursery Realms: Children in the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror,” the book which is cited in the link in the bonus fact.