Learning to talk to children with Down syndrome has a few special challenges simply because of the nature of the disorder. These special children have developmental delays which vary from mild to severe in learning, speech and cognitive development. Help them to learn to verbalize, pronounce and enunciate, to the best of their ability, will require learning to talk to them.
The common areas of weakness in speech development for children with Down syndrome do not needlessly lie within their ability to understand or comprehend, but in being able to process and form words in response. Poor phonics skills, poor auditory memory, and / or their passive temperaments may all influence those around them to simply respond to their needs, which may be given by gestures, grunts, or their own version of sign language, without encouraging verbalization. Given that bit of information, you will realize that talking with these very special children are not much different than talking with any other child. It just requires a little more patience, and an understanding that you are both learning as you go.
First and foremost, never underestimate their ability to comprehend and understand. Talk to them as you would any child their age. Just because they may have difficulty finding the right word to respond with or difficulty forming it, does not mean they do not get it. Even if they do not understand exactly at that moment – at some point they will.
When a child with Down syndrome grunts, signs or gestures for a need or want, encourage them to say the word. If they want a hug, have them attempt to say the word HUG. Exaggerate the pronunciation as dramatically as necessary. Praise them for any attempt and celebrate ALL successes. Encourage and praise will be crucial to their continued effort.
When talking to a child with Down syndrome, ALWAYS allow them time to respond. We can not always find the right words at times – and they just need a little longer. If they are having trouble with pronunciation, that's ok. Accept any attempt in the beginning. As they become more confident over time, gently prompt with the correct pronunciation. Remember, they are just learning at a slower pace and need lots of practice.
Down syndrome children also have the tendency of being passive by nature, so they may rarely demand attention. Therefore, it is not uncommon for them to be ignored in social settings. Including them in conversations will increase their comprehension, social, verbal, and auditory skills. It is also a major influence on their self-esteem as well.
Every moment and action is an opportunity to build the language skills of a Down syndrome child. Simple conversations become catalysts for understanding the world around them. Knowing them time to respond, and striving every attempt, will give them the practice they need to communicate not only with family, but with the outside world. And that will truly be something to celebrate with them.