People with Down syndrome also experience learning difficulties that lead to delays in many areas of development. However, not all areas of development are affected equally - there are particular patterns of learning difficulties. These patterns can inform more effective teaching approaches and therapies.
Most children with Down syndrome meet developmental milestones later than other children, including the ability to walk and talk. They often have mild to moderate intellectual disability and may have specific challenges with attention span, verbal memory, and expressive communication.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition that happens when a child is born with an extra chromosome. The extra chromosome affects the way the child’s brain and body develop, leading to developmental delays, intellectual disability, and an increased risk for certain medical issues. Down syndrome is the most common genetic cause of intellectual disability, affecting approximately 1 in every 700 children. It is named for John Langdon Down, the British physician who first recognized the traits of Down syndrome in 1866. The chance that a baby will be born with Down syndrome increases with a mother’s age: • 1 baby out of every 1,000 born to women under age 30 • 1 baby out of every 400 born to women older than 35 • 1 baby out of every 60 born to women older than 42
Children with Down syndrome can have a variety of health issues. About half are born with a congenital heart defect, a structural problem with the heart that develops during pregnancy. The most common congenital heart defects in children with Down syndrome include: • atrioventricular septal defect, the most common heart defect in children with Down syndrome • patent ductus arteriosus • tetralogy of Fallot Many children with heart defects also develop pulmonary hypertension, a condition that can cause lasting lung damage if left untreated. Other health issues that commonly affect children with Down syndrome include: • hearing loss • vision problems • ear infections • obstructive sleep apnea
The social functioning of babies and children with Down syndrome is relatively less delayed than other areas of development. Babies with Down syndrome look at faces and smile only a week or two later than other children and they are usually sociable infants. Infants with Down syndrome enjoy communicating and make good use of non-verbal skills including babbling and gesture in social situations. Most children and adults with Down syndrome continue to develop good social skills and appropriate social behaviour, though a significant minority may develop difficult behaviours, particularly those with the greatest delays in speech and language development. Learning with visual supports Research suggests that people with Down syndrome learn better when they can see things illustrated. This finding has been demonstrated across a number of areas of development including the acquisition of language, motor skills and literacy. This suggests that teaching will be more effective when information is presented with the support of pictures, gestures or objects.
Many children with Down syndrome can develop reading abilities in advance of what might be expected for their cognitive and language levels. Reading makes an important contribution to vocabulary and language development for all children and this may be a particular benefit for children with Down syndrome, given their specific language delays. Characteristic difficulties
Motor skills develop at a slower rate for children with Down syndrome than for those without. These delays in motor development reduce infants’ opportunities for exploring and learning about the world around them and therefore further affect cognitive development. Poor oral motor control may impact the development of language skills. Expressive language, grammar and speech clarity Children with Down syndrome show specific delays in learning to use spoken language relative to their non-verbal understanding. Almost every child will have expressive language that is delayed relative to their language comprehension. The children experience two types of expressive difficulty - delay in mastering sentence structures and grammar, and specific difficulties in developing clear speech production. The gap between the children’s understanding and their ability to express themselves is a cause of much frustration and can sometimes lead to behaviour problems. It can also result in the children’s cognitive abilities being underestimated. Language delay also leads to cognitive delay as much human learning is through language and language is internalised for thinking, remembering and self-organisation.
Most children with Down syndrome struggle with basic number skills and their number skills are typically some 2 years behind their reading skills. There is a need for more research into the reasons for this. Currently, the best available advice is to draw on what is known about the children’s learning strengths and to use maths teaching systems that make full use of visual supports to teach number concepts
###Verbal short-term memory
Short-term memory is the immediate memory system which holds information ‘in mind’ for short periods of time and supports all learning and cognitive activity. It has separate components specialised for processing visual or verbal information. The ability of children with Down syndrome to hold and process verbal information is not as good as their ability to hold and process visual information. These verbal short-term memory problems make it more difficult to learn new words and sentences. They also make it more difficult to process spoken language and this can adversely affect learning in the classroom. Studies suggest that the processing and recall of spoken information is improved when it is supported by relevant picture material. This information has led to educators stressing the importance of using visual supports including pictures, signs and print when teaching children with Down syndrome as this approach makes full use of their stronger visual memory skills.
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