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Down Syndrome and Language Acquisition

ds4By: Kimberley Powell
Children with Down syndrome can face many challenges, health problems, hearing impairments and learning disabilities, including those affecting language development.
Most children begin learning language skills, such as grammar and speaking, at rapid rates early in their lives. Children with Down syndrome, however, typically experience delays in language development, learning more slowly and at varying rates.Speech production is difficult, and many problems in communication have been linked to difficulties with speech production and grammar usage.
Down syndrome is a developmental disability resulting from an extra copy of chromosome 21, and it affects about 5,000 newborns in the United States every year (National Down Syndrome Society, 2003 fact sheet).
Children with Down Syndrome frequently begin to use single words between the ages of two and three. The child’s first true word may not be a spoken word, but it may be a signed word. Most children with Down syndrome communicate from birth through crying, looking and gesturing. They have the desire to communicate and learn that crying or making sounds can affect their environment and bring them help and play and attention. Many children with Down syndrome, by 10-12 months of age, understand the relationship between a word and a concept. However, the child generally does not have sufficient neurological and motor skills developed to be able to speak at that age.
The Parents’ Role in Fostering Language Development
Parents are the primary communicators with their babies and young children; thus, parents can do a great deal to help their children learn to communicate. Many of the pre-speech and pre-language skills are best learned in the home environment.

  • When teaching a word or a concept, parents should focus on conveying meaning to the child through play or through multi-sensory experiences (hearing, touch, seeing).
  • Most children with Down syndrome need many repetitions and experiences to learn a word. Repeat what your child says, and give him a model to help him learn words.
  • When you are teaching a concept, use daily activities and real situations as much as possible. Teach the names of foods as your toddler is eating, names of body parts while you are bathing your child, and concepts such as under, in and on while your child is playing.
  • Read to your child. Help your child learn concepts through reading about them, field trips in the neighborhood and daily experiences.
  • If your child shows interest in an object, person or event, provide him or her with the word for that concept. Many children enjoy looking in a mirror, and increase their sound play and babbling when vocalizing in mirrors.

Early language intervention (ELI) is provided to infants and toddlers from birth through the end of age two. Speech-pathology services should be part of a comprehensive overall treatment plan for infants and toddlers. It may involve sessions at home or in a center, and may be part of a team approach involving physical, occupational and other therapists working together with the family.
Researchers have traditionally thought that language learning in children with Down syndrome stopped during the teenage years. As a result, youth typically received no language instruction after puberty. However, in a September 2002 report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison entitled “Kids with Down Syndrome Learn Language Beyond Adolescence” researchers explained how individuals with Down syndrome can benefit from language intervention programs during adolescence and beyond, precisely because it takes them longer to learn.
The longitudinal pattern of language learning in individuals with Down syndrome shows that language comprehension skills quickly develop during childhood, but that development slows down as the child reaches the teen-age years (University of Wisconsin-Madison).
Language expression skills run a different course. “The biggest gap in language learning occurs between language comprehension and expression,” says researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But, unlike the other set, expression skills continue to improve throughout adolescence.
“The rate of change in expressive learning skills,” researchers say, “is predicted by the rate of change in language comprehension skills.” For example, if an adolescent acquires the ability to understand complex grammar more slowly, he will also acquire the ability to speak that grammar more slowly.
These findings, explain researchers, point to the importance of continuing language intervention during the teen-age years: “The study’s findings suggest that there should continue to be language work in both comprehension and expression throughout teen-age and young adult years.” Furthermore, researchers suggest that, because of the gap in the development of the two skill sets, language instruction should alternate its emphasis between them.
Individuals with Down Syndrome tend to favour gesture communications over spoken language. Children with Down Syndrome have difficulties producing spoken words, yet, they are able to continue learning gestures naturally like their normal counterparts; thus, gestures are frequently used to make comments, requests and acknowledgements from an early age to convey the message when their speech is not understood or do not have the works available (University of Wisconsin-Madison).
Although the majority of children with Down Syndrome learn to speak and will use speech as their primary means of communication, they will understand language and have the desire to communicate well before they are able to speak. It is important to allow the use of both spoken and signed communications from an early age, as early language development in children with Down Syndrome is boosted and tend to have larger vocabularies (University of Wisconsin-Madison).
The copyright of the article Down Syndrome and Language Acquisition in Disabilities is owned by Kimberley Powell. Permission to republish Down Syndrome and Language Acquisition in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
Reprinted with the express permission of Kimberley Powell.
Our Featured Author: Kimberley Powell
Kim Powell holds a Master’s Degree in Speech & Language Pathology as well as certificates in reading Braille, Applied Studies in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Child Psychology, Acquired Brain Injuries, oral deaf education and Child abuse.
Over the years, Kim has had the opportunity to work with children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, acquired brain injuries & fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. During her free time, Kim volunteers at her local Children’s Aid Society, sits on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) committee for Resources for Exceptional Children and works as a child abuse prevention educator for the Red Cross. Kim values the opportunity to work with so many children and help make a small difference in the lives of children and families. She continues to advocate for a system that will guarantee that every child/youth – regardless of geography, parental income and the level of challenge access to quality support services that respond to their individual needs.

PediaStaff hires pediatric and school-based professionals nationwide for contract assignments of 2 to 12 months. We also help clinics, hospitals, schools, and home health agencies to find and hire these professionals directly. We work with Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, School Psychologists, and others in pediatric therapy and education.


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