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National Down syndrome study a first

National Down syndrome study a first

Kiwi children with Down syndrome can look forward to a brighter future thanks to research being undertaken at Canterbury University.

Anne van Bysterveldt, a speech-language therapist and fulltime doctoral student in the Department of Communication Disorders is spearheading a study investigating the speech and reading development of New Zealand children with Down syndrome.

In New Zealand, between 50 and 80 babies are born a year with Down syndrome, a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. As well as distinct facial features, the condition causes delays in learning and development.

As a result children with Down syndrome experience particular problems with speech and language that can hold them back when they join mainstream schooling.

Anne’s PhD study is two-part, including a national survey and an early intervention programme.

Approximately 150 children with Down syndrome in Year one to Year eight classes across the country are involved in the survey.

Anne says there is currently very little systematic data relating to the spoken and written language development of New Zealand children with Down syndrome so her study aims to gather this data and look at the practices that help facilitate these skills.

The survey includes use-friendly parent and teacher questionnaires and targets aspects of the child's engagement and involvement with reading and writing both in the classroom and at home as well as assessing the child’s current literacy skills.

“Families are excited to be involved as they know an increased understanding of development in both spoken and written language areas will help foster interventions to enhance their child's long-term development,” says Anne.

Anne’s project is being supervised by Professor Gail Gillon from the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of Canterbury and Dr Susan Foster-Cohen, Director of the Champion Centre, a specialist early intervention centre in Christchurch.

The researchers are particularly interested in the role of parents in engaging their children in activities to promote speech and reading skills.

As part of the research project a parent-led intervention aimed at facilitating early literacy skills for pre-school children with Down syndrome has been developed and implemented at the Champion Centre.

The intervention involves a speech-language therapist, a computer therapist and parents working in an integrated manner to simultaneously facilitate speech, phonological awareness and letter knowledge.

Anne says follow-up assessments have been very encouraging and the response from families has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The parents’ feedback has been wonderful. They say the intervention programme has given them something to focus on and has helped them gain new skills and confidence working with their children. They are seeing some real progress in their children’s ability and love that besides the educational benefits it is a lot of fun,” says Anne.

Anne, who is a year into her PhD, has received financial support to undertake her research project through a Tertiary Education Commission Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship and was recently awarded a Medical Staffing International – New Zealand Speech Therapy Association Post-Graduate Award.

The New Zealand Speech and Language Therapist’s Association (NZSTA) is holding their annual Speech and Language Therapy Awareness Day on Friday 18 August. The theme this year is Child Language.


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