As my youngest son is nearing his third birthday, I’ve been reflecting on what I have learned about building early communication and Down syndrome over the past three years. I have concluded that my 24/7 crash course in communication has taught me quite a lot about early communication skills for children with Down syndrome. It has reinforced what I learned in graduate school and in 24 years of being a speech pathologist.
I am tempted to say that I learned more in these past 3 years than in the 21 preceding that time, but I suspect that my learning was accelerated or focused more because of my background as a speech pathologist. Using that speech pathology lens, along with many years working in the area of early intervention, I have been able to focus on Dominic’s communication in a very specific way. Here is a bit of what I’ve learned in that time.
The Practice Conundrum
When someone has difficulty communicating, practice of specific skills really is critical. I know this. We’ve set up little activity boxes, and we designated one table as Dominic’s work space. At times, I have consulted other speech pathologists, attended conferences, and talked to other parents, and I’ve incorporated what I have learned from them into my goals for my son.
Finding the actual time to sit and practice is difficult. Some days it is absolutely impossible. I don’t know where time goes. It is sucked up by diapers and meals and guiding the other children to achieve their own goals. We juggle appointments, play dates, and routine chores and activities. On paper that takes a few hours each day, but somehow in real life, there isn’t often a time to sit at that fancy table and pull out those carefully thought out boxes and “work” on communication.
That is actually a great thing because…
Routines Build Communication Skills
There is a lot of research that shows that learning in context really boosts the way that knowledge is solidified. This actually makes life easier to build communication practice into the fabric of our lives rather than sit at a table and try and drill concepts into a toddler who may or may not be interested.
With a little bit of thoughtfulness, any parent can learn to incorporate language learning activities into routines. Right now, Dominic is fully capable of asking for his favorite foods. So what do we do? We don’t give them to him. Sounds barbaric, doesn’t it?
Ok, I should clarify. When we want to build communication skills, we don’t give him his favorites right away. He could happily live on peanut butter sandwiches and bananas as a steady diet, but that isn’t healthy for him, so we do offer a full range of dietary choices, and he reacts like any typical 2-year-old to our ideas of what good nutrition should be.
Sometimes we show Dom his choices and let him tell us which he wants to eat. Other times we give him a non-preferred choice first and wait for him to ask for what he wants. When we give him something he will eat, he will usually go ahead and eat it then ask for more or for one of his favorites. If we give him pasta—look out because the answer is always a resounding “NO!” We still offer pasta and other things he doesn’t care for because it gives him a chance to learn to make choices, and it gives him a sense that he has some control over his world through language.
Try This at Home
There are many ways to incorporate language: making choices, following directions, naming, and more into every day activities. If you have a young child who is just beginning to communicate, try focusing on communication skills while going about daily routines, and you may find that there are plenty of opportunities out there to help your child fine-tune those communication skills.
*This entry was cross-posted to Trisomy 21 Club, a page devoted to information about Down syndrome (and Dominic!).