Children who are diagnosed with Down syndrome typically develop speech and language skills at a slower rate than other children. Even though they may struggle, there is information that has been learned over the years through case studies and research that are shown to help those diagnosed with Down syndrome progress with speech and language.
Even though most individuals with Down syndrome do not speak their first words until around ages 2-3, they have a desire to communicate long before they can say their first words.
This is where total communication, using sign language, picture boards, and/or electronic devices can serve as transitional communication means.
What Is Total Communication?
“Total communication (TC) is the combined use of signs and gestures with speech to teach language.”National Down Syndrome Society
Total communication provides a child with an output system to communicate when he or she has not yet developed the skills needed for speech. In total communication, adults use sign AND speech when talking with the child.
The child learns signs in conjunction with speech and uses the signs to communicate. Sign language is a transitional system for children with Down syndrome.
Other choices for transitional communication systems are:
- Pictures used on a communication board or in a communication exchange system.
- Electronic communication systems which use synthesized speech.
A speech-language pathologist and/or augmentative communication specialist (AAC) can help design a transitional communication system for your child. Most children with Down syndrome will use speech as their primary system for communication.
What Are the Language Characteristics of Children and Adolescents with Down Syndrome?
Research and clinical experience has shown that some areas of speech and language are more difficult for those with Down syndrome.
Some of these areas include:
- Syntax and morphology, which include grammar, verb tense, word order, word roots, suffixes and prefixes.
- Receptive/Expressive Gap is present. This is when the understanding of language (receptive) is higher than what you can express by oral or written communication (expressive).
An area of strength in language development is their social language skills. They typically have strong pragmatic and vocabulary skills. They often develop a rich and varied vocabulary as they mature. They have good social interactive skills and use gestures and facial expressions effectively to help themselves communicate.
What Are the Speech Characteristics of Children and Adolescents with Down Syndrome?
This is a tougher area to address because there is a wide range of abilities among children and adolescents who are diagnosed with Down syndrome.
Speech intelligibility (how well speech is understood) is one of the most difficult areas across the board. Many children have difficulty with the strength, timing and coordination of muscle movements for speech. Speech involves coordinating breathing (respiration), voice (phonation), and the production of speech sounds (articulation).
Factors that can contribute to speech intelligibility problems include: articulation problems with specific sounds, low oral-facial muscle tone, difficulty with sensory processing and oral tactile feedback, use of phonological processes (e.g. leaving off final sounds in words) and difficulties in motor planning for speech.National Down Syndrome Society
What Can Parents Do to Help Infants and Young Children Learn Speech and Language?
Parents are the main communicators interacting with their baby/young child so it’s important that they learn skills and strategies to facilitate a positive learning environment.
So what are these activities that you can do?
- Remember that language is more than spoken words. When you are teaching a word or a concept, you should focus on conveying meaning to the child through play or through multisensory experiences (hearing, touch, seeing).
- Provide many models. Most children with Down syndrome need many repetitions and experiences to learn a word. Adults should repeat what a child says and give him or her a model to help reinforce a word.
- Use real objects and real situations. When teaching a concept, parents can use daily activities and real situations as much as possible. You can teach the names of foods as their toddler is eating, names of body parts while bathing the child, and concepts such as under, in and on while the child is playing. Communication is part of daily life.
- Read to their child. You should help their child learn concepts through reading about them, field trips in the neighborhood and daily experiences.
- Follow their child’s lead. If a child shows interest in an object, person or event, parents should provide him or her with the word for that concept. There are many milestones as the child progresses toward using speech. The child responds to a familiar voice, recognizes familiar faces, experiments with many different sounds, produces strings of sounds over and over and makes a sound to refer to his or her parents (dada, mama). Many children enjoy looking in a mirror, and increase their sound play and babbling when vocalizing in mirrors. Effective ways to work on these skills at home can be learned through early intervention sessions, through books, workshops and speech and language professionals.
*** National Down Syndrome Society information ***
You can practice these skills at home and in the community. By doing this, you assist your child in learning new communication skills and help them in carrying over their skills into a broad range of situations. When a child has more opportunities to communicate, their skills will expand and grow.
How Can I Get Help for My Child?
Parents and guardians are often frustrated because they feel their child needs more speech therapy than what is being provided through the school system. The downside is that schools have a strict code that they have to follow when it comes to eligibility.
Sometimes eligibility depends on whether a child’s test scores are below those for his or her age; other criteria include the relationship between cognitive and language levels. Parents should make sure they are aware of the eligibility criteria, as well as the federal, state or local legislation and policies that apply to service delivery in speech and language.
Even though speech pathologists work in schools, they also work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, private practices, and university clinics and parents should look into additional help for their child, when needed.
In addition to speech therapy, download the Speech Blubs app, where you can find tons of great resources and activities that you can work on with your child.
Stacie Bennett has been practicing as a Speech-Language Pathologist for the past ten years. Currently, she works full-time at a vocational high school in New Jersey and have her own private practice. Feel free to contact Stacie if you have any questions!