Building Communication for Early Language Development is Key for a Child with Down Syndrome
Because he has Down syndrome, I fully expect that my son Dominic will develop speech and language skills in a slightly different way than my other children have done. Dominic’s speech development is of particular interest to me because of my 20+ years as a speech pathologist, and I’ve been keeping track of his progress thus far.
Dominic’s development thus far has been slightly slower than the development of my older children, both in his physical milestones and his communication milestones. We’ve had a few extra appointments over the past few months, but all of his health checkups have been spectacular. I have gotten frazzled when he’s had a blood draw, I worried about the first cardiologist visit, and I got great news at his follow-up. In between all of that, we just live life, go to physical therapy once a month, and just love this sweet kiddo.
This morning I was listening to Dominic make his little baby noises. He is now 9 months old and he has a lot to say, he just can’t use his mouth to form his thoughts into words. He studies our lips and tries to imitate the movements. He has recently become very aware of his tongue tip and he is having a great time moving his tongue all around. If I want to get his attention–and a guaranteed grin–I just click my tongue on the roof of my mouth and he is enthralled. Occasionally he can pull it off himself.
Sign Language as a Bridge to Communication
One of the features of Down syndrome is low muscle tone. With this in mind, we know we can expect him to have a delay in speech because manipulating the mouth to say words is a complex process. We aren’t letting that stand in the way of communicating, though. We started using sign language with Dominic a couple months ago. None of us are fluent, but I have taken some classes and used sign as a bridge for communicating with my older children and with clients over the years. I borrowed some videos for my kids to watch so that they would know some signs and start using them as well.
A couple weeks ago, Dominic started signing “Mom.” A couple days ago, he signed “Dad” for the first time. It is so precious to see him. When he is signing to me, he often will make an exaggerated effort at eye contact as if to say “HEY!” and then he signs “Mom” and grins at me. So sweet.
The first time he signed “Dad” was right after Brian had picked him up. Brian started kissing Dominic’s neck and then, after Dom was finished giggling, he signed “Dad” and reached up and grabbed Brian’s beard and stared at his eyes. He’s signing those two several times a day now, and we’re working to figure out how to come up with sign names for the kids that are not terribly similar so they are easier to tell apart. We use the sign for “bell” for Bella and I think Dom was trying to do that tonight. Looks like we are going to scramble to stay ahead of him on this one.
As he was waking up this morning, Dominic had quite a lot to say. He usually babbles as he is waking up, and I noted that he is now using a couple consonants in a string rather than one at a time. To be specific, he is combining a string of sounds in a consonant + vowel + consonant + vowel string (sometimes a little longer) and he is varying the consonants. He is using the /b/ and the /d/ now (and has previously mastered /g/) and mixing them up. It might not sound like much, but it is a big deal. He also started using the “ee” sound today, a vowel sound that requires more muscle tone than a simple “ah” or “uh”.
We Honor Communication Attempts
One other thing about communication. We are very attentive to his attempts to communicate with us. Dominic is generally a happy child who is rarely upset. He is mightily offended by boogers and by farts. But seriously, who isn’t offended by boogers and farts? When he does cry, one of us is trying to soothe him almost immediately. This is partly because there are so many of us, partly because everyone wants him to be happy, and partly an attempt to show him that his communication has meaning. When he is upset and we respond, he sees that his cry has a desired effect of getting help.
I am fascinated as we watch Dominic’s development unfold. Knowing that each milestone requires more effort for him than it did for my older kids, I celebrate each accomplishment. Of course, for him, this is simply life as he knows it, and he is content.
Thus far, he has gentled us, humbled us, and made us all a little more compassionate. Life with this child is a true blessing.