We may have seen our neighbor or someone on the street who looks stunted, having upwards slant eyes and talks… differently. Those are the physical and behavioural appearance of people afflicted with Down syndrome. On the streets, for the sake of being polite, we can just stare away or smile. But when they become our neighbor, our school mate or even our colleagues, we can’t merely ‘act polite’. We need to try communicating and interacting with them, as ignoring them would be much more cruel. Yet, we can’t practically treat people with Down syndrome exactly as we treat those who are not afflicted, can we?
First, let’s take a look at what causes Down syndrome and how it affects people.
All human bodies have nucleus in their body cells which contains genetic materials in genes. Genes carry all codes for our inherited traits. Ideally, a nucleus of every cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes or the rod-like structure that groups the genes. Half of each pair is inherited from each parent. Down syndrome occurs when someone has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
The additional chromosome alters someone’s development and affects the physical and behavioural characteristics, as described in the beginning. They also possess cognitive delays, which individuals vary from mild to severe.
World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that there is at least 1 Down syndrome per 1.000 births to 1 occurrence per 1.100 births in the world. Every year, around 3.000 to 5.000 children are born with this condition. WHO estimated that there are 8 million people with Down syndrome worldwide. Iceland is the only country so far that is close to be the first country without Down syndrome. Only close to. So, until now, every country in the world must have cases of Down syndrome.
Until now, the cause of Down syndrome is still unknown. There has been no definitive scientific research that indicates the cause is due to environmental factors of parents’ activities before or during pregnancy. Yet, whatever causes Down syndrome, children and adults who are afflicted by it are amongst us. We can’t simply ignore them, merely handing them to professionals or let them to only socialize with their own and their parents. In fact, nowadays people with Down syndrome has been increasingly integrated to the general society as they go to public schools, work forces, community organisations and other social activities.
As a caring society, we need to embrace all and that includes those with Down syndrome. But, of course, communicating with them gets tricky. Here are some principles you need to know while dealing with people with Down syndrome.
1. Language barrier is a strong issue when communicating with people of Down syndrome, which is usually caused by lack of language development during the first 5 years of their lives. The syndrome has intervened their ability to learn the necessary language needed to engage in a conversation. However, as the syndrome prevents them from picking up language skills and talk freely, they pick up other vital skills to maintain communication, such as spatial memory, numeracy knowledge, and so on.
2. People with Down syndrome work best with concrete ideas, instead of abstract things. If you’re trying to explain something, make sure that you give concrete examples.
3. Pay attention to details of what you say. Be specific and clear. When you say, “Close the window,” be specific whether it’s “just this window” or “all windows”.
4. You may notice how people with Down syndrome remember precisely about film scenes, including the dialogue. This is due to most people with Down syndrome have amazing photographic memory. So, be careful of how you present yourselves in front of them. They translate situations to visual memories. Once you scare them, it will be very hard to detach the scary image of you from their memory.
5. They usually have a fixated terms on how to do things, like organising, grooming, arranging things, et cetera. Try to be more understanding to their personal habits, especially as long as their habits don’t interfere with the general social conduct. They can be rather stubborn about certain things and now you know why!
6. Just like us, while we’re getting ready in front of the mirror, people with Down syndrome also talk to themselves. Self-talk is a common method to cure daily stress. Sometimes people with Down syndrome may be seen in public doing it, so people misunderstood the behaviour as “strange”. But it’s basically the same self-talk that everyone does.