Happy Down Syndrome Awareness Month!
To honor this month, let’s talk about the language profile of individuals with Down syndrome. While I’m going to speak about language characteristics of people with Down Syndrome, it is important to note that no two people are every alike when it comes to speech and language development. Someone once told me, “If you’ve met one person with Down syndrome, you’ve met one person with Down syndrome,” which is completely powerful and true.
SLPs can support people with Down syndrome in many ways and in many areas. Let’s go!
Individuals with Down syndrome typically have low muscle tone and a large tongue relative to the size of their mouth. As a result, people with Down syndrome often have difficulties with articulation, or speech sound production. Research shows, as well, that kiddos with Down syndrome produce less utterances overall than those without Down syndrome. SLPs can work on articulation with these clients. For individuals who are significantly unintelligible (difficult to understand), SLPs can set up an AAC system for them. This can take a lot of different forms, including no-technology based systems like picture exchanges or high technology devices such as an iPad.
Overall, children with Down syndrome display delays in language development. When it comes to language, people with Down syndrome display difficulty with sentence structure, otherwise known as syntax, both in producing various sentences and understanding them. Morphology, or the little parts of words that change the meaning (like the ‘s’ for plurals or ‘-ed’ for past tense), is also challenging. Issues with memory, cognition, and attention all contribute to difficulties using and understanding language.
A relative strength for individuals with Down syndrome is vocabulary and the ability to tell stories!
The area of social skills is tricky. There’s a lot of various information about the social skill profile of individuals with Down syndrome. Research has shown that kiddos with Down syndrome utilize the same communicative functions (like answers, commenting, protesting) as their language-matched peers. They also can maintain a topic of discussion as long as their developmental age-matched peers.
Areas of difficulty can include initiation of topics in conversation, meaningful contributions to conversation, and understanding conversations. SLPs can help with this!
People with Down syndrome typically have narrower, shorter, and flatter Eustachian tubes. These are important for allowing fluid to drain from the ear. As a result, ear infections and fluid build up are pretty common for people with Down syndrome. Recurrent ear infections in anyone can lead to hearing loss, though it can fluctuate depending on the amount of fluid in the area and how long the fluid is there.
Because of these ear infections, individuals with Down syndrome can experience issues that are a consequence of hearing loss. Articulation and language development can be significantly impacted by hearing loss. SLPs can work with these kiddos to catch them up from the delay.
The same structural differences that contribute to speech issues (low tone, large tongue, small mouth) can also lead to dysphagia, or eating/swallowing difficulties. To prevent things like aspiration (food/liquid getting into the lungs) or malnutrition, SLPs (and our OT friends) can work on compensation strategies and dietary changes to help.
As mentioned earlier, the profile of individuals with Down syndrome are highly dependent on the individual! No two people are alike. However, SLPs are here to assist with language needs. So, if you have any questions or concerns, be sure to call your friendly neighborhood SLP. 🙂