The majority of children with Down syndrome (DS) have language delays, although they often have stronger receptive language skills (what they understand) than expressive language skills (their ability to communicate). Language delays in children with DS stem from both cognitive and physical differences. For example, two-thirds of children with Down syndrome have trouble hearing due to fluid accumulation in their ears. Because hearing is central to learning language, seeing an otolaryngologist can help.
In general, though, early and quality intervention under the guidance of a speech-language pathologist can set a child with DS on a path to a highly communicative future.
The Loyola College of Maryland has developed a series of resources for helping children with DS develop language skills. Here are some of their highlights:
By the age of 8 to 10 months, your child with DS should have developed the precursors to being able to speak, including using sounds and gestures that signify trying to communicate, taking turns in communication, making a request and even understanding referential images such as a picture of a bird. It can take a year from this point before her first foray into words. Working with a speech-language pathologist can help you develop tools such as sign language and communication boards to aid comprehension, and also exercises to help her be able to make the necessary oral movements for speech.
Beyond First Words
It can take up to age 3 to 5 for children with DS to move beyond their first words. Help expand your child’s vocabulary by tuning into her senses as you label everything you see, such as when taking a walk—the trees, the birds, the flowers… Point out the object and let your child smell and touch it as you repeat the word so she begins to associate the word with the experience. And follow her lead—give her the word for what she shows interest in.
Once she’s grasped the word, make sure you acknowledge that she understood by repeating the word, and then help her expand it. Add on to the word, and repeat the addition: “Green tree.”
Into Preschool and Kindergarten
Even if they aren’t able to communicate as effectively as other children their age, children with DS benefit from exposure to a preschool and kindergarten environment. At home, this is the time to start taking story time to a new level. Read to your child, point out the words and help her begin to associate letters with sounds, and encourage her to imitate. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery—it signals the cultivation of language skills!
Continue to work with your speech-language pathologist and make sure all the tools you’ve developed, such as communication boards, are available for school work. Most school systems have individualized education programs (IEPs) through their special education programs that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.
As we mentioned earlier, most little ones with Down syndrome learn to communicate, it just takes extra time (and help from the grown-ups in their lives). Also keep in mind that our BabySparks program adjusts to each individual child’s needs, so our speech activities are a great resource for helping children with Down syndrome learn language skills.