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Experiences in early development

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Sneath, G. (2003) Experiences in early development. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(1), 21-21. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.212

We have received invaluable support from many organisations and individuals, but it was principally the workshops, training, resource materials, and 'Early Development Classes' provided by Down Syndrome Education International (DownsEd), in Portsmouth that gave us the understanding and confidence we needed to help our daughter to achieve her best. With their help, our daughter Katrina learned to read before she started mainstream school at the age of four and a half years.

We have been very privileged with the expert support and help we have received. Katrina was born in New Zealand, and the day after we brought her home, we received a visit from the Speech and Language Therapist. (Yes, we were puzzled too!) She helped with feeding difficulties, but on subsequent visits also gently coached us on the principals of early interaction such as eye contact, babbling, mimicking play, and most importantly using a type of Makaton hand signs in support of language development. The service was provided very sensitively along with other services, and home visits were reduced or postponed as circumstances dictated.

We followed the recommendations dutifully, but our expectations were still very low and based on 'historical' role models. It was not until Katrina was two years old, that Professor Sue Buckley visited New Zealand and presented her research results on the importance of speech and language in early development. It was a 'life changing' experience to see videos of preschool children with Down syndrome reading, and to realise that, although Katrina could not yet talk properly, she would very soon be able to start learning to read!

When we arrived in England we attended one of the many 'Parents Conferences' at The Sarah Duffen Center, where we met parents who had traveled from as far as Slovakia, and from Holland. At subsequent workshops I have met parents from Ireland and even Kenya, such is the international reputation of Down Syndrome Education International.

The charity coached us on the weaknesses and strengths that children with Down syndrome have for the development of cognitive skills, social skills, speech and language. Training on behavior management helped us to 'nip in the bud' some early problems. The workshops also provided a small, intimate forum to discuss issues with other parents under the helpful and tactful umbrella of support from the staff.

The speech and language 'sound cards' were particularly helpful in practicing and improving specific consonant sounds, at a time when the NHS Therapist didn't appreciate Katrina's abilities, and told us not to worry about it until she was seven!!

At the Early Development Groups we were thrilled to see our daughter make a good start on the alphabet, counting and reading, before she started school. As a consequence, Reception year teachers recognised that given the right type of support she is well capable of learning. As a matter of professional pride, they approached the challenge with great interest and vigour.

Katrina Sneath at an Early Development Group

Katrina taking part in reading activities at the Early Development Group at The Sarah Duffen Centerd

Not all children develop and progress at the same rates, but it was exciting to watch the steady progress made by each of the children at the charity's Early Development Groups. It is also exciting to hear of new support groups being initiated around the country, along similar lines.

(This letter was also published in a similar form in the Down's Syndrome Association Journal, Issue 102, Spring 2003, visit their website www.dsa-uk.com for more details)

Greg Sneath is a parent currently living in New Zealand