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Wil can fly: Utah dad photographs toddler with Down syndrome, highlights his limitless potential

If Alan Lawrence could go back to the day his wife, Nikki, gave birth to their fifth child, he would tell himself one thing: "The future is very bright."

When Alan and Nikki Lawrence welcomed William to their family on Oct. 14, 2013, they were surprised to learn he had Down syndrome.

"When I initially heard that the doctor told us it was Down syndrome, I was kind of selfish about it," Alan Lawrence said. "I was sad. I was a little frustrated. It’s always hard for me to admit it because I love him so much, just the way I feel about all of my kids."

Lawrence wondered how the diagnosis would affect his son and his family.

"I guess I kind of, I really viewed it in a negative way," Lawrence said. "I took it really hard. I was crying a lot, … just really dwelling on the things that were out of my control. … We were really new, really naive to Down syndrome and what that meant. I just really wanted him to live a full life."

That night, the couple gathered with their children and turned to their faith for comfort and guidance.

"We did a family prayer, … and it was one of the most spiritual moments I've ever had," Lawrence said. "I actually said the prayer and just asked the Lord for strength and for help with Wil and for strength that our family could recognize what a blessing he was to our family. I have never felt the Spirit so strong. Our family bonded even more that night."

While Nikki Lawrence immediately recognized the blessings William brought to their family, it was more of a gradual process for Alan Lawrence. But as Alan developed a deep love for William and learned more about the full life his son could lead, he wanted to share William's light with people around the world.

Alan Lawrence found an opportunity to do that when 6-month-old William was learning to roll onto his stomach. While in the prone position, William would kick his legs and wiggle his arms, leading the Lawrence family to joke that William was trying to fly. But what began as a joke sparked an idea.

"I was thinking, 'I want to make him fly. He wants to fly. Let's make him fly and support him in that,’” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, a freelance photographer and professional art director, took several photos of himself holding William in the air in this flying position. Then Lawrence Photoshopped himself out of the pictures and shared them on Facebook with family and friends.

Soon the entire family — Gracie, 12; Zac, 10; Nikolas, 8; and Ali, 6 — became involved by either joining William in the photos or brainstorming new backdrops.

"It kind of sparked an idea of just showing our family life and showing how Wil is not a burden on our family; he is integrated in our family," Lawrence said. "I hope, anyway, it gives a sense of how Wil affects our family in such a positive way."

Lawrence explained that although all of his children have special talents, William has a unique ability to bring happiness into their home.

"He has a smile that is so infectious," Lawrence said. "It’s like a glimpse into heaven. I can’t describe it really other than that. When you’re around him, there’s just a light of happiness."

As Lawrence posted additional pictures of William flying, the images began attracting attention online. As the family continued to find creative places for William to fly, Lawrence and his wife, Nikki, realized that the photos could represent not only their love for William but also their belief in his potential.

"It kind of took on a new meaning," Lawrence said. "What I wanted this message to kind of be is that Wil has Down syndrome, but he can do anything he puts his mind to. The only limits he’ll have on his life are the limits we put on him."

Lawrence posted the photos on his blog, thatdadblog.com, as part of a series titled "Wil Can Fly," and they received comments from people around the world. News outlets such as ABC News, the Daily Mail and Buzzfeed also shared Lawrence's photographs.

"At first it was just a cute picture of our baby boy flying but has since turned into something bigger than we ever expected," Nikki Lawrence wrote in an email interview. "Sharing Wil's light with the world has been so much fun. I love meeting people from all over the world through social media and hearing how Wil has touched their lives or to learn their story and the joy that they feel from their child, cousin, sibling or neighbor who has been blessed with a little extra."

Although Alan Lawrence would have continued posting the photographs even if they hadn't gone viral, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the happiness his son brings him with others.

"I wanted other people who had kids who were just starting on this journey, who are finding out that their kids have Down syndrome, to be more optimistic about the future than I was initially," Lawrence said. "We’ve been blessed with Wil joining our family to help us recognize things we need to work on but also to just help us recognize the beauty of life."

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @Sarah_DNews