Speech, Language, Communication and Down Syndrome

The ability to communicate is a learned process that begins at birth and continues to develop over a lifetime. We often think of communication as the ability to speak. However, from birth the infant is communicating his wants and needs using a variety of vocalizations and gestures.

The ability to speak requires an individual to have adequate breath support to phonate, a larynx (voice box) and functional oral movement of the lips, tongue, jaw and soft palate. These skills and the intent to communicate are necessary for speech to develop.

The development of speech is generally correlated with learned oral skills. For example, infants who learn spoon feeding soon produce sounds that require both lips to come together (b,p,m). The ability to produce sounds such as t and d might occur when the baby is sitting and lifting his tongue to remove food from his palate. The infant and young child practice oral movements during feeding. As the foods increase in texture, a greater demand for refinement of oral skill is necessary to be a successful eater. Subsequently, sounds are acquired as new movements are learned.

Many children with Down syndrome have small facial structures and muscle tone is often lower than normal. This combination may contribute to the child's inability to produce or achieve intelligible speech.

Several factors may contribute to the delay of speech. Some children display general delays in development. Others are delayed due to significant muscle weakness, especially of the articulators. This type of weakness, termed dysarthria, may slow the onset of speech and disrupt intelligibility.

Dyspraxia, a motor incoordination affecting the ability to plan and/or execute sounds, may also delay speech. This problem may exist with or without other causes.

Sensory problems may be a coexisting problem. Your child may not willingly try new food textures, tastes or temperature. Therefore, he is limited in his oral experiences during the feeding process. This limitation compromises the development of new sounds for speech.

A speech pathologist can help you identify the reason(s) for your child's delay in speech development. Once identified, a specific treatment plan can be implemented.


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e-mail: wespeech@flash.net

This article first appeared in issue #7 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us

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