What I Learned About Early Communication and Down Syndrome

Communication and Down SyndromeEarly Communication and Down Syndrome: Some Perspective

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.

Mealtime provides opportunities for communication.

Mealtime provides opportunities for communication.

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!).

Rose Godfrey

Rose Godfrey

Rose Godfrey is a speech pathologist, writer, world traveler, and mom of 12.She earned her Masters Degree from California State University, Chico. Rose is licensed as a speech pathologist in several states and she holds the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Rose Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned About Early Communication and Down Syndrome

  1. I’m an SLP in Missouri. Currently, I am working in a public school district but have experience in just about every setting! I’ve been in the field 13 years, but still, at times feel like a “newbie” with my students with Down Syndrome. I’m hoping you can give me your opinion and a new set of eyes with a 3rd grade student with Down Syndrome? Any thoughts/suggestions are welcome! My DS student is for the most part non-verbal. She does verbalize, but is highly unintelligible. Little to no follow-through at home with PECS and sign language I have recommended. She has a good amount of signs she knows and is able (in most cases) to produce initial consonants of target vocab words I work with her on. We have ABA therapists in our school district who are willing to incorporate speech/language therapy into their programming, which helps a lot (mostly). The lead ABA therapist has asked me about a communication device (that costs only about $35) that she found recently. She has not told me the name of this device, so I can’t elaborate on it at this time as I have not been able to find it via multiple Google searches:(
    I’m somewhat skeptical of this device, but yet, curious to see if it would help too! I just don’t see how this device will be a long-term solution as I have been disappointed with other significantly more expensive AAC devices used in the past with my students. Any suggestions of new things to try?

    • I would love to find a device for that price, but my hopes are not high that it would be useful. As you know, having dedicated communication partners helps shape and refine those utterances with positive feedback, and lack of carryover can really be frustrating.

      I have had some success with using a very simple pacing board (dots on the table or words or cute stickers in a row that appeal to the child) to help the child mark syllables or words. Sometimes if the child will give us spaces between words or mark syllables, we can understand them better. A long time ago, I had something called Materials for Expressive Syntax–it was old when I started and that was a quarter century ago–but I’ve kept the idea. The MEST used a series of black line drawings for various sentence structures: the dog is running, the boy is running, the girls is running…..he jumps, she jumps, it jumps…..so on one page it would have all the ones for that structure and then the client could practice with changing one word. I like to use action pics (and I’m hoping to try putting together some videos too that show actions). I show the picture and give the target “The boy is sleeping” and then pair it with a question “What is the boy doing?” and then I expect either “he is sleeping” or “the boy is sleeping”…paced and spaced. You can vary the task from 1 word (It’s an apple? What is it? Apple) to much longer sentences. And, of course, you can put in phrases that are useful in the classroom (I want chips. What do you want? I want chips).
      If you can take photos, you can take photos of the child doing all the things she does during the day and then use the pics (or videos) with working on expressive language to talk about her day. Because kids with DS are so visual, it is a great idea to put the written target words on the photos–you may find that you have a reader on your hands, if not now then later.

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