Down syndrome occurs at conception when an extra copy of the twenty-first chromosome develops, resulting in abnormalities in the brain and the body. The degree that the disability affects a person intellectually varies from mild to severe, so teaching a person with Down syndrome isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. With some modifications and special considerations for the individual learner, a person with Down syndrome is fully capable of learning life skills.
Consider Physical Limitations
Down syndrome affects a person's development physically in addition to mental development abnormalities. Muscle hypotonia, or lower than normal muscle tone, can affect how well a person can perform certain life skills. This can interfere with fine motor control, such as grasping a toothbrush, pulling a zipper or holding a spatula. The Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan recommends giving extra time and plenty of practice when teaching skills. With repeated practice, muscle development can improve and support the person's ability to complete life skill tasks.
Build on Basics
As with any person, an individual with Down syndrome has her own set of skills, abilities and talents. That means you need to individualize instruction, whether you're teaching her how to get dressed or how to read. Assess the skills the person already has that support learning new life skills. If she is able to follow basic instructions, for example, use that as an introduction to following a recipe. Don't limit what you think she can accomplish if her existing skills are low. According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, an individual with Down syndrome is better able to reach her potential when she faces few limitations.
Make It Concrete
No matter what life skill you're teaching, an individual with Down syndrome needs concrete, visual instruction. Break down the task into small steps so the person is able to follow along and process each step. Show how to do a particular life skill. For example, physically sort out dirty clothes into separate piles when teaching him how to do laundry rather than just telling the person to put them in piles by color of type of clothing. Don't overload the individual with too many instructions at once or by going through the process quickly. Give him time to process each step.
Use Cues and Repetition
Because people with Down syndrome tend to be visual learners, pictures work well as cues when doing personal tasks, such as cooking, cleaning or getting dressed. Draw pictures or take photos of a person completing each step, or make a step-by-step chart to hang near the work area. For example, have pictures that show sorting clothes, putting them in the washer, adding detergent and turning on the machine near the washer. Practice the life skills frequently with support and supervision so the individual builds competence in the tasks. Verbally reinforce her actions to encourage her confidence in performing the life skills.
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