Matt Rhodes has a silly sense of humor, a keen sense of empathy, a family who loves him more than anything. And he has Down syndrome.
Now a video about his relationship with his niece and nephew is going viral, and shining a light on the world of people with Down syndrome.
“I let my brother with Down syndrome take care of my baby, from newborn until now,” his sister Erin Johnson explains in the viral video.
"People tend not to take him seriously, but when we gave him the chance to be the one doing the caring and not the one being cared for, he rose to the occasion and surprised everyone with his tenderness.”
Johnson has been so astonished by her brother Matt's relationship with her children — especially the years of memories he has shared with his nephew — that she created a video documenting their relationship. Posted in May, the video now has over a million likes on Instagram.
Johnson tells TODAY.com that her children, Dominic, 5, and Louisa, 3, love “being silly” with their “fun uncle.” She says they know that because Rhodes is so goofy, “they can get away with a little bit more, like making raspberries and funny noises and talking about poop.”
Rhodes’ “all-time favorite thing” to do with the kids, however, is bedtime. When they were little, he would give them a bottle, rock them, read a book and sing songs.
“And then he would just sit and watch the monitor until they’d wake up from their nap,” Johnson says. “I think he liked that it was routine, he knew exactly what to expect and he had a very specific job to do."
By the request of their parents, Rhodes is never left completely unattended. If Johnson is prepping dinner, Rhodes may take the kids into the backyard. If she's putting Dominic to bed, he might put Louisa to bed across the hall. Even though Rhodes never has total responsibility for the kids, the family does have similar "expectations" for him that they would for a trusted babysitter. The only difference is that if he yelled out for help, another adult would come running.
Now that the kids are older and not taking as many naps, Rhodes relishes the opportunity to teach them something new or take them on an adventure. He has walked Dominic through Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland, hung out in a tunnel at the zoo with Louisa, and driven them both on his ride-on lawnmower.
In many ways, Rhodes knows exactly what his niece and nephew need.
"He has this deep sense of empathy and understanding. He just knows when something's not right. He has a really good sense for how people are feeling and then has a good deal of intuition as to how to fill that need," says Johnson.
Despite living an eight hour drive apart (Johnson lives in Zeeland, Michigan and Rhodes lives with his parents near Nashville, Tennessee), the families make it a point to see each other regularly, which has helped the kids' relationship with their Uncle Matt blossom.
“Having my brother in my life has made my life so, so rich and given me so much perspective. I want to offer that to other people,” says Johnson about the creation of her Instagram account, @erinadvocates.
Johnson says she and her husband, Lucas Johnson, wants people to see her brother and others with intellectual disabilities “as humans that are worth celebrating.”
TODAY's own Savannah Guthrie grew up with an uncle who had Down syndrome, and in a 2013 essay she described the profound impact her Uncle Pierce had on her life.
"When my father died suddenly, our family was shattered. Sometimes, it was only Pierce’s simple kindness that could soften our grief," she wrote. "Pierce reminded me every day what matters in life: goodness, gratitude, enthusiasm, warmth."
This article was originally published on TODAY.com