Physical speech problems can be overcome, says Helen Hayes
Imagine a world where you are unable to make yourself understood, find it difficult to make friends, socialise or even to order your favourite pizza. Imagine also that you are unable to have the opportunity to gain qualifications, go to university, have a job or even live by yourself. These are the challenges that an individual with Down’s syndrome faces every day.
A child with Down’s syndrome early language development is similar to a typically developing child, but their specific speech characteristics and poor short-term memory limits language learning. Their understanding tends to be better than their production of language, which can include stuttering and talking too fast. However, individuals with Down’s compensate with non-verbal communication skills which include signing, gesture and facial expressions. They also process information more visually, including using pictures and objects.
What we need to do as professionals, parents and members of the public is to harness their strengths and give them motivation to learn and use their language.
However, the physical characteristics of an individual with Down’s also affect their speech. They can have low muscle tone around the jaw, lips and tongue. Their mouths can be small and have irregular dentition that affects the movements required for intelligible speech. There is also a high prevalence of visual and hearing impairment among those with Down’s, which affects wider learning and communication.
An individual with Down’s is often slower to process information, which can make it seem like they are not interested, not paying attention or being lazy. This, combined with their poor spoken language, makes it hard for an individual with Down’s to form friendships and participate socially.
Every child and adult has a right to be understood
Not understanding an individual with Down’s is everyone’s problem. We should do everything we can to help them improve their speech, as well as empowering other people with strategies to enable good communication, which will help an individual reach their full potential within society.
At Down’s Syndrome Scotland, we believe every child and adult with Down’s has a right to be understood and be actively involved in society. It is our job to educate the public on the difficulties faced by individuals with Down’s and how we can help them improve their communication skills.
We have started with parents and it is with thanks to the kind and generous funding by RS MacDonald Charitable Trust, Equitable Charitable Trust, Children’s Aid and the John Watson Charitable Trust that we are now offering two exciting pilot programmes across Scotland which will enable parents to learn more about their child’s communication skills and how they can help improve them.
Following our Achieving Better Communication (ABC) groups which have run for the past seven years in Edinburgh, our first new pilot project is a weekly group in Glasgow. Parents or carers bring their child along to a group with other children of similar ability. The groups aim to provide children and their parents with communication strategies to help the children reach their full potential.
The second pilot project is for communication skills parental workshops, which are located throughout Scotland including Orkney, Perth, Inverness and Aberdeen. Parents and carers will attend a series of five workshops to learn about typical language development, the learning profile of their child and being given strategies to improve their child’s communication skills. There will also be opportunities to carry out practical activities with their child during the programme with the speech and language therapist.
The aim of this pilot project is to increase parents’ confidence to support their child’s communication. The project will be independently evaluated in order to secure future funding to help run these projects across Scotland on a more permanent basis.
At the moment, the provision from Down’s Syndrome Scotland is for children but it would be my hope to expand our service to create communication groups for teenagers and adults with Down’s syndrome across Scotland – but this can only be carried forward if there is a demand and more crucially funding to support these initiatives.