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Down Syndrome

Although Down Syndrome is not recognized as a specific disability under the USA federal law IDEA, the impact of this disorder, may cause a student to be qualified for special education services to assist in accessing education.

What is It?

students raising hands in a classroom

Down Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of 46, which causes delays in physical and intellectual development. Persons with Down Syndrome have characteristic features that often makes them appear as brothers and sisters in the same family. They may have:

  • a slight flattening of the face
  • a flat area on the back of the head
  • squaring off of the top of the ears
  • a low bridge to the nose
  • a fold of skin over the top of the inner corner of the eye
  • a ring of tiny white spots around the iris
  • and other physical features which make them immediately recognizable

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, there are three types of Down Syndrome:

  1. The most common type that accounts for 95% of cases is called Trisomy 21 and is caused by an error in cell division called “nondisjunction.” Prior to or at conception, a pair of 21st chromosomes either in the sperm or egg fails to separate. This results in an embryo with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two. As the embryo develops, the extra chromosome is replicated in every cell of the body.
  2. The second type of Down Syndrome is called mosaicism. This happens when nondisjunction takes place in only some cells, thus some cells contain the usual 46 chromosomes and some have 47. Mosaicism accounts for only 1% of Down Syndrome cases.
  3. The third type is called translocation. Here, part of chromosome 21 breaks off and attaches itself to another chromosome, usually # 14. Although the total number of chromosomes remains at 46, the extra part of chromosome 21 causes Down Syndrome. Translocation accounts for 4% of all cases (“About Down Syndrome”, n.d.)

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an annual diagnosis of about 6,000 - or about one in every 700 babies - in the USA each year, and there are more than 400,000 living individuals with Down Syndrome in the country.

Learning Support

Students with Down Syndrome tend to have language delays and poor memory. Research conducted in 1980 (Buckley & Bird) suggested that children with Down Syndrome may have a more effective visual memory than auditory memory. Strategies which can be helpful for students with Down Syndrome include:

  • Computer-aided learning, using programs to teach speech, reading, and writing skills
  • The use of cue cards to help students self-check their level of comprehension and reinforce their self-help skills.
  • presenting new vocabulary in print—whether on paper or computer— as this helps the student store a visual image of the words
  • for work that relies on the use of memory, use labeling or verbal associations
  • Breaking down information into small clusters and use sequences for ideas and patterns.

Paraprofessionals and Teacher Assistants are often involved in using rehearsal strategies for students with Down syndrome because repetition is essential for them to learn.

Inclusion with peers in general education has been shown to have a positive impact on some children with Down syndrome. According to a study by the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, students with Down syndrome experienced higher self-esteem, independence in daily living skills, greater academic achievement, positive social interactions, and improved speech and communication when educated in inclusive settings.

References and websites on this subject

United States

United Kingdom