Discuss as:

Child model with Down syndrome inspires thousands

By Anne Thompson and Amber Payne
NBC News

Ryan Langston has everything a casting director would want in a child model: charisma, a hip haircut and a knockout smile. This 6-year-old also has Down syndrome -- and it is that fact that has daytime talk shows, international newspapers and news networks all wanting to tell Ryan's story.

His appearance in a Nordstrom catalog this summer, and a Target ad this month created the kind of buzz marketing directors dream of -- because of what the ads do not do. They don't emphasize or point out that Ryan has special needs. He's just a good looking kid in an ad, appearing alongside other good looking kids about the same age.

On the Internet, parents of other special needs children are praising the ads -- and Ryan -- an outpouring that's surprised and overwhelmed his parents, Amanda and Jim Langston.

In the Langstons' first broadcast interview, which aired on Jan. 16 on NBC Nightly News, Ryan's mother Amanda Langston said they are "thrilled" that their son has become an inspiration to so many others.

"He's a beautiful little boy and he does shine, he has a beautiful little light and I think that's what people are seeing," Ryan's mother Amanda said, when she spoke to NBC's Anne Thompson at the Langstons' home in Garwood, N.J.

Ryan is every bit a 6-year-old boy: riding his bike in the back yard, climbing the rock wall on his playground set, and using all sorts of trucks to dig up his mother's garden. He's a bundle of energy who had a very difficult start. Ryan was born with a hole in his heart and had open heart surgery when he was just 3 months old. That hurdle cleared, his parents began early intervention to help Ryan develop muscle tone and communication skills.

Fast forward a few years, and Ryan is a happy, engaged child. A cute kid with blonde hair and blue eyes, he has been modeling ever since he was 3 years old. The now famous Target ad shows Ryan posing next to four other children. He's the only child with Down syndrome, but he blends right in -- and Target didn't attempt to highlight his difference.

"The fact that they are not making a big deal - it's ironic," Ryan's father Jim said. "It's a big deal because they are not making a big deal about it."

Courtesy Amanda and Jim Langston

Ryan Langston.

The Langstons' decision to involve Ryan in modeling was never about the money, Amanda said. "This has just become his own thing," she said. And it's also turned into a confidence booster.

"There are times where his speech is unbelievable, he's speaking full sentences," Amanda said. At other times, the stress of being unable to communicate can have a snowball effect.

"A lot of people with Down syndrome have anxiety, and he does," Jim said. "You see him rubbing his hands in nervousness, or he takes a step back and says, 'OK, OK' because he is trying to reset his mind to thinking what to say."

But when Ryan is on set, surrounded by his family and hamming it up for the photographer, his anxiety seemingly disappears.

"Ryan loves doing it, and when I say this I don't think people understand that he knows it's his thing!" Amanda said. "I joke all the time that after the shoot is over he does not want to leave, I almost have to drag him out from wherever we are."

Despite the attention generated by Ryan's Target spread, ads that feature children with disabilities are not new. According to Target spokesperson Jessica Carlson, the company has included people with disabilities in ads since the early 1990s. And Nordstrom catalogs, where Ryan has also appeared, have been including child models with Down syndrome since 1997.

Most of these print ads have come and gone with little fanfare. Ryan's Target ad might not have been any different if it wasn't for so-called "daddy blogger" Rick Smith, who wrote about Ryan's Target ad on Jan. 2. That posting, and the accompanying ad picture, went viral.

"The response has been overwhelming," Smith said. "Hopefully stories like Ryan, and Noah and the community that is building online will help keep this story going strong." Smith writes about his 11-month-old son Noah on NoahsDad.com. Smith's son also has Down syndrome, and his blog is a platform for the world to see that their life is much more normal then "un-normal."

Courtesy Amanda and Jim Langston

Twins Ryan and Ian Langston.

Every day Smith posts a one-minute video called "Noah's Minute."  These short videos are a glimpse into their everyday life, and range from Noah playing on the swingset to his physical therapy sessions. 

"For so many years people assumed our story was a sad one. We hope that our son can sort of open the book for them, so to speak," Smith said. "We don't live in a sad story. We live in a good one."

The Smiths traveled from Dallas to New York City for a vacation over the weekend and were thrilled to meet Ryan and the Langston family in person for the first time on Monday. 

Ellen Narucki, Ryan's special needs teacher at The Arc of Essex County Stepping Stones School in Roseland, N.J., said the clothing ads are sending a positive message for people with Down syndrome, and show how they can also be accepted as part of society.

"That's a very important point, I think, that in the long term our goal is to have our children be profitable and to be part of society," Narucki said.

As long as Ryan continues to enjoy modeling, the family will continue to support him -- especially his fraternal twin brother.

Amanda says Ian, who does not have Down syndrome, "has probably been the largest part of Ryan's success."

The two boys still sleep in the same room, although they'll eventually be separated. For now, Amanda said, "we feel it's important that bonding is there."

"Ian is his big brother, even though they [were born] one minute apart," Amanda said. "Ian is the big brother, and Ian is taking on that role, and he has that personality. It's just who he is."

His brother's affection is just one of the many ways Ryan knows he's important.

"He looks at the Target ad and goes, 'That's me!'" Jim said. "The fact that Ryan, how he is, can enlighten people and gives his life value, he can be an ambassador in some way, we were thrilled about that."

Additional reporting by msnbc.com's Christina Caron.