A school-based speech intervention for children with Down’s syndrome

Children with Down’s syndrome often have specific difficulties in speech production, in addition to their cognitive disabilities. This makes the children’s speech less easy to understand, which can restrict their integration into the local community and can hinder their progress at school.

Speech and language therapists often favour a focus on total communication, incorporating hand signing or the use of picture symbols, rather than direct work on speech. However, a recent research project by the same research team found that a specialised technique called electropalatography could significantly improve the speech clarity of children and young people with Down’s syndrome.

Electropalatography is a technique for recording the timing and location of tongue contact with the roof of the mouth during speech. It requires the speaker to wear an artificial palate which is similar to an orthodontic brace and fits against the roof of the mouth. The palate has 62 silver electrodes embedded in it. When the tongue touches these electrodes the pattern is recorded by a computer. A key advantage of this technique is that the child also receives visual feedback, as patterns of tongue-palate contact can be displayed live on a computer screen. The therapist can then help the child to modify his speech so that it sounds more like that of his or her peers. The technique also plays to the relative strength in visual processing amongst children with Down’s syndrome, and to their enjoyment of IT-based activities.

This new project will expand on the earlier research by taking the intervention into schools, making the technique more readily available. The researchers will focus on twenty children aged 6 to 10 years in central Scotland. A training programme will be developed for the support assistants working in the children’s own schools, and the assistants will work with the children in their schools every day over twelve weeks. Each family will also be given portable equipment so they can reinforce progress at home. The research aims to assess changes in speech production – both within the treatment period and then three and six months later – and also to evaluate the practicalities of delivering the intervention in schools.