Down syndrome, named for Langdon Down, the physician who first described it, is the cause of mental retardation. Down syndrome can affect your appearance causing a small head, flat face, slanted eyes, high cheekbones and/or a protruding tongue. If you have this condition, you may have a hard time communicating with others. Children with Down syndrome often appear cheerful, calm and/or cooperative. However, some of this placidity can disappear in adolescence, when some teenagers with Down syndrome, just like other teenagers, experience emotional difficulties or behavioral problems.
What Causes Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is characterized as a chromosomal disorder. It is the most common chromosomal disorders that can result in mental retardation. However, chromosomal disorders themselves have been the subjects of hot debate for decades. Although experts agree that certain factors such as the increased age of mother and/or father or exposure to radiation may predispose someone to a chromosomal disorder, the exact cause or causes of chromosomal disorders remain elusive.
The majority of those diagnosed with Down syndrome have trisomy 21, a chromosomal abnormality that occurs when you have an extra chromosome. In other words, normally a person has 46 chromosomes, but a person with Down syndrome has a total of 47 chromosomes. This extra chromosome occurs when there is problem during meiosis (cell division) stage of development.
In the past, the life expectancy of Down syndrome children was tragically short, with many succumbing within 12 years. In today’s world, with advances in medical care, individuals with Down syndrome live into middle age or longer. If you have Down syndrome, you may experience a decline in language, memory, the ability to care for yourself and/or your problem-solving skills in your thirties. The decline may be caused by the accumulation of the senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in your brain.
What Treatments are Available for Down Syndrome?
There was a time, not too long ago, when treatment for Down syndrome was not even considered. Families accepted the limitations of their children and quite often, institutionalization was considered to be the most appropriate course of action, especially as the children physically matured. Attitudes have changed enormously since then and early intervention programs, mainstream inclusion in schools and vocational training programs have made life with Down syndrome full and rewarding.
The social, physical, language and self-help skills gained in very early childhood are the base on which normal development is built. This is particularly true of children with Down syndrome, who may experience delays in some areas of development. Early intervention programs provide the means of reducing the impact of those delays.
This chart, provided by the National Down Syndrome Society, gives you an idea of what normal development looks like and the ages at which certain milestones are met by children with and without Down syndrome. It clearly illustrates the value of early intervention.
Early intervention programs include: physical therapy that focuses on motor development and activities that teach children with Down syndrome how to interact with their physical environment. They also reduce or eliminate the orthopedic problems associated with Down syndrome. Speech and language therapy teaches you how to imitate sounds, make eye contact, use your tongue and lips and improve your thought processes. Occupational therapy teaches life skills that will give you independence.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act governs the ways in which states and public agencies provide services (such as early intervention and special education programs). This act mandates “free and appropriate public education” to every child of school age, including those with special needs. The goal is to prepare children with disabilities for an independent life, employment and/or further education following high school. As a parent, you can expect transportation, therapeutic counseling, vocational and mobility services.
College is not out of the question. The website Think College: College Options for People with Intellectual Disabilities, (www.thinkcollege.net/) provides information on colleges that welcome individuals with Down syndrome.
Where Can I Find Additional Information of Down Syndrome?
The National Down Syndrome Society (www.ndss.org/) offers a full range of information for new parents, families and others who are interested in Down syndrome.
Kaplan, H. I. & Sadoc, B. J. (1996). Concise textbook of clinical psychiatry. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
The National Down Syndrome Society. (n.d). Early intervention. Retrieved from www.ndss.org/.