AUTHOR: Cassy Christianson

Down Syndrome

Developmental Patterns of a Child with Down Syndrome

Every child is unique and develops at his or her own pace. This is especially true of children with Down syndrome whose rate of development is even more variable. Every time you take your child to the pediatrician, the doctor checks to see how your child is doing in the areas of intellectual, social-emotional, communication, and motor development.

Instead of focusing on a particular developmental milestone, attention is paid to the overall pattern of development reflecting the child’s strengths and areas of need. Intellectual delays are usually mild to moderate. (IQ or score achieved on an intelligence test identifies learning potential within the 70–40 range.) Children with Down syndrome tend to have higher abilities in the areas of social and adaptive skills.

Early Intervention to Improve Development

The first years of every child’s life are a critical time for optimal development. Early intervention can maximize each child’s potential. People who help with early intervention include:

  • Early childhood educators
  • Health care professionals
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Speech and language pathologists
  • Social workers

Other specialists are involved as needed. The goal of early intervention is to build on a child’s strengths to facilitate further development and to prevent patterns of development that could lead to orthopedic or emotional or behavioral difficulties.

Language and social skills. Children with Down syndrome develop language skills at a slower rate than many children. Some children with Down syndrome also have to deal with some structural problems, such as limited tongue movement, that may interfere with early sucking, swallowing, and eating. Therefore, children with Down syndrome benefit from early help with eating. This will prepare them for speech and language development.

These early skills are called oral-motor skills. Both occupational and speech and language pathologists can help your child with the movement and cognitive skills needed to acquire language. These early interventions with oral-motor skills and early language can set the stage for your child to interact cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally with other children. You may be encouraged to try oral communication methods, combining speech with simple signs, to further your child’s communication efforts.

Movement development. Many infants with Down syndrome appear to be floppy or have looseness of the muscles and joints, making it harder for them to move freely, roll, sit, stand, and eventually, to walk. The floppiness is called hypotonicity. Some of the floppiness is related to excessive joint hypermobility and ligament laxity.

Children with Down syndrome may appear weak and unable to initiate typical infant movements, such as kicking and reaching. But early intervention by physical and occupational therapists will help a child learn to gain head control, roll, sit, stand, and walk. Each child with Down syndrome will move through the developmental stages at his or her own pace, but therapy will provide the encouragement for children to actively engage in gross motor activities.

Early therapeutic activity decreases the chance of developing orthopedic problems that could interfere with movement later in life. The therapists work with each child individually and in group activities to develop motor control through play and some focused exercises. Learning through gross motor play can also improve aspects of your child’s cognitive skills, such as the ability to focus, develop persistence, get a sense of cause and effect, and explore or develop curiosity.

Parents and extended family members are a very important part of each child’s early intervention activities and programs. Speech and language and physical and occupational therapists, as well as learning specialists, will work with both you and your child so the exercises or activities are fun and effective when incorporated into daily life.

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