The aim of this article is to provide those in daily contact with children and adolescents with Down syndrome, including parents, teachers, classroom assistants and pre-school staff, with information that will enable them to help the children to talk more and to talk more effectively. It will also explain the need to take account of the children’s speech and language difficulties when involving them in classroom and school activities, and when teaching them to read. The article should also be useful to speech and language therapists, as it provides a guide to recent research and sets out the principles that should inform speech and language therapy programmes for children and adolescents with Down syndrome, drawn from that research.
Since I last reviewed the information available on this topic in 1993 , there have been many important papers [2-8] and book chapters [9-22] published on speech and language development, and several books [23-25]. These publications have all contributed is some way to an increased understanding of the language learning needs of children with Down syndrome and there is now considerable agreement among the experts on the principles which might guide effective interventions [2/5/10-13/25-27].
The title of my 1993 article was ‘Language development in children with Down syndrome: reasons for optimism’. I am even more optimistic as a result of the new information available now. The evidence suggests that most children and adults with Down syndrome could be talking more, talking more clearly and talking in longer sentences if we could provide those in daily contact with them with relevant practical guidance.
This does not mean that everyone should be working all day, everyday, on intensive language teaching activities, though in our experience, some structured teaching each day is important and I will return to this later in the article. It means that we can probably all improve the effectiveness of most of the normal everyday interactions that we have with children with Down syndrome, as parents, teachers and carers. If we have some insight into how children learn to talk and into the specific difficulties that may be slowing up this process for children with Down syndrome, we can create a more effective language learning environment.
At The Sarah Duffen Centre, we provide speech and language intervention through early development group sessions for children from birth to five years. We have also been engaged in research in this field for almost twenty years, so in writing this article, I am drawing on our own practical and research experience [28-34] as well as the published literature.
The article will address the following questions:-
- How do children learn to talk?
- What is the typical profile of speech and language development for children with Down syndrome?
- How much do children with Down syndrome vary in their progress?
- What does recent research tell us about the possible reasons for the delays and difficulties with talking experienced by most children with Down syndrome?
- Does the research provide any guiding principles that should inform intervention activities?
- What are the practical implications of this research for those caring for or teaching babies, toddlers, preschoolers, or children in primary school, junior school, secondary school or college?