Down Syndrome and Learning to Talk (NDSC 1997 Convention Handouts)
James D. MacDonald, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Director
Communicating Partners Center
332 Mimring Road
Columbus, OH 43202
Telephone and fax: (614) 447-0010
Frequently Asked Questions
The findings below result from a 25 year clinical research program at the Ohio State University
directed by Dr. James MacDonald. Over 200 families with children with Down syndrome were studied
within therapy programs. For more detailed discussions of the questions and practical ways
parents can help children communicate read Becoming Partners with Children,
Before Speech and First Words available from the above address.
Why Do Children with Down Syndrome Have Difficulties Learning to Talk?
- Slower Muscular Development
It is harder for children with Down syndrome to make the rapid movements needed to combine speech sounds for language.
- Slower Understanding of Adult Language
It is more difficult for our children to process long strings of information that they are often exposed to.
- Less Practice Interacting with People
Our children often spend much less time interacting with people and practicing their communication.
- Too Passive a Role in Social Life
Our children are too often on the taking than the giving end of relationships, thus affording less of the active participation they need for speech to develop.
- Old Nonverbal Communication Works too Well
Especially within families, children with Down syndrome develop elaborate ways to communicate with movements, gestures and sounds that are effective at home but not in society. The children often have little need to use the more difficult words.
- Low Expectations of Others
Many people do not engage children with Down syndrome in communication much because they do not expect them to talk or be understood.
- People Talk for Them
Ofren, our children appear to learn not to talk when others talk for them.
- Not Enough Time to Talk
Frequently, people do not wait long enough to allow a child to respond. Children with Down syndrome often act very passive as if they know they won't have much chance to talk.
Our children are often exposed to much more language than they can try to do. It is like throwing several balls at a child learning to catch.
- Too Much School Language; Not Enough Communicative Language
Much of the language we teach our children, like numbers and colors are not very useful in daily communications. Children need to have a practical life vocabulary if they are to practice their language regularly.
- Too Much Performance Language; Not Enough Social Talk
Many children with Down syndrome use language to recite things and perform show and tell feats. But, they often do not have the easy conversations that build friendships.
What Can I Do to Help My Child Talk?
Use the guide below to prepare you child to be a frequent and enjoyable talker.
To help you learn these strategies, refer to the two new home activity books, Before Speech
and First Words.
- Play frequently in ways your child plays.
- Balance your times together; be sure both of you do about as much as the other.
- Wait for you child to talk; avoid doing all the talking.
- Match your child's actions; act in ways you child can act.
- Match your child's communications; communicate in ways you child can do.
- Talk as your child does, then show him a next step.
- Respond to your child's little sounds and actions as communications at first.
- Respond more to your child's words than gestures or sounds, after he's talking regularly.
- Show him what to say in one or two words.
- Make talking times more play than work.
- Translate your child's own language of sounds and movements into a word.
- Don't rush your child to words; communicating with sounds comes first.
- Reduce your questions; show your child what to say instead.
- Accept any pronunciation at first, he won't talk like an adult until he practices a lot.
- Play with words back and forth; words are your child's most important toys.
- Be more of a play partner than a teacher; your child will stay and learn more.
- Be a living dictionary; put words on your child's experiences as they happen.
What Does My Child Need Before He Talks?
The more your child is in the habit of doing the following things, the more ready he will be
for language. Use the checklist below to prepare you child to talk.
My child is ready to talk when he or she:
To determine how ready your child is for language, score him from 1-5 on the skills above.
- Plays with people
- Interacts frequently with people
- Imitates others' actions
- Imitates others' sounds
- Takes turns in play
- Pactices making many sounds by himself
- Communicates with movements
- Communicates with sounds
- Plays meaningfully with things
- Responds to speech
- Prefers being with people to being alone
- Plays more of an active than passive role
1 = never or not at all
Then, use the Before Speech activity diary to build these skills with your child. Begin
focusing on one or two skills your child gets at least a score of 3 on, so that both of you begin
with successes, then proceed to building up to lower skills. Be sure to enjoy doing these; avoid
making it hard work for either of you.
2 = seldom
3 = occasionally
4 = frequently
5 = always or strong and stable
- The following 1997 NDSC Annual Conference audio cassettes are available by James D. MacDonald, Ph.D., CCC-SLP:
- 010A. Communicating with pre-verbal children with Down syndrome
- 010B. Communicating with verbal children with Down syndrome