Speech and language issues

We need to talk! Insights from Mothers’ and Fathers’ speech to their children with Down Syndrome

Desiree Grafton-Clarke1; Linda Kelly1; Elizabeth Nixon1; & Jean Quigley1

  1. Infant & Child Research Lab, School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin

Contact: graftond@tcd.ie


Child-directed speech (CDS), the patterns of speech that adult caregivers produce when interacting with children, scaffolds language and cognitive development in typically developing children. However, little research has examined how CDS attunes to child communicative abilities in the context of having Down Syndrome. The aim of this study was to address this gap and to characterise the lexical, syntactic, and interactive features of mothers’ and fathers’ speech input towards their children with Down Syndrome.

Extending our preliminary findings introduced at the 2019 research forum, data will be presented from 31 children with Down Syndrome, (aged 10 months – 4 years, M= 26.11 months, SD= 14.96), and their parents. These data will be compared to 80 age-matched typically developing children (aged 2 years, M= 24.06 months, SD= 1.39) and their parents. The total number of words, diversity of words used and mean length of utterance for mothers and fathers were calculated by transcribing recordings obtained during a 5-minute structured-play interaction. Conversational balance (turn-taking) was also examined.

Compared to mothers of typically developing children, mothers of children with Down Syndrome used fewer words and shorter utterances but displayed greater conversational balance. In contrast, fathers of children with Down Syndrome used longer utterances, more diverse vocabulary, and displayed lower conversational balance compared to fathers of typically developing children. This suggests that mothers of children with Down Syndrome adapt to their child’s language abilities by using shorter utterances, whilst responding to their toddlers’ conversational cues, whereas fathers adapt by using more complex language. This research may contribute to our understanding of the factors that influence the developmental profile in children with Down Syndrome.

Stuttering in Children with Down syndrome

Silje Hokstad1; Kari-Anne B. Næss1; J. Scott Yaruss2; Karoline Hoff3; & Ane H. Melle3

  1. Department of Special Needs Education, UiO
  2. Michigan State University
  3. The National Service for Special Needs Education, Statped

Contact: silje.hokstad@isp.uio.no


Stuttering is suggested to be highly common in individuals with Down syndrome; its presence may contribute to poor speech intelligibility and communication difficulties. The number of studies on the topic is low, and the evidence regarding stuttering in this population has limitations due to small samples, wide age range (some including both children and adults), and a single measure of stuttering. The aim of the current study is to investigate the occurrence of stuttering in a national sample (N=76) of first graders with Down syndrome.

Two stuttering measures based on a set of two speech samples per participant are used:

  1. A transcript-based evaluation coding for core stuttering behaviors (repetitions, prolongations and blocks) and other disfluencies (repetitions of multisyllabic words and phrases, interjections and revisions).
  2. A perceptual evaluation of stuttering severity (10-point scale from 0=no stuttering, 9=extremely severe stuttering).

Preliminary analysis, based on one speech sample, show a high frequency of core stuttering behaviours identified in the transcript-based evaluation, with 58.4 % of the children reaching the commonly used diagnostic criterion of 3% syllables stuttered. Based on the severity measure 31.6% of the children were judged to be stuttering (rating above 0) with ratings ranging from 1 to 6. The results indicate a higher frequency of stuttering in this population than in the population of children without Down Syndrome; however, the choice of measure may significantly impact the identification of stuttering. In further analysis we will investigate the frequency of different types of stuttering behaviours; we will also include a second speech sample, which will add to the robustness of the measure.

The Stuttering and Language Link in Children with Down syndrome

Kari-Anne B. Næss1; Egil Nygaard2; Hilde Hofslundsengen3; & J. Scott Yaruss4

  1. Department of Special Needs Education, University of Oslo
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Oslo
  3. Western Norway University of Applied Sciences
  4. Michigan State University


Both stuttering and language disorder are suggested to be highly common in individuals with Down syndrome. However, to date their association are not known. The aim of the current study is to investigate the occurrence of stuttering status in a national sample (N=41) of first graders with Down syndrome and to look at the association between stuttering and language functioning. Stuttering status was measured by a four point disfluency scale from no disfluency to severe disfluency, and language was measured with clinical tests of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, and processing speed. Data were analysed in SPSS for frequency (%), Fisher’s exact test, Student’s t-test, and linear regression.

The degree of disfluencies in the group of children with Down syndrome varied from none to severe, and the occurrence of stuttering was estimated to 46%. Higher language skills were significantly associated with a lower degree of disfluencies. Empirical and practical implications of the finding will be discussed.

Grammar comprehension abilities in individuals with Down syndrome – Cross-sectional and longitudinal data

Bernadette Witecy1; Isabel Neitzel1; Eva Wimmer2; & Martina Penke1

  1. University of Cologne, Germany
  2. TU Dortmund University, Germany

Contact: bwitecy@uni-koeln.de


Introduction: Receptive language abilities are often described as a relative strength compared to language production in individuals with Down syndrome. However, when looking closely, difficulties in language comprehension, especially receptive grammar, become apparent. Based on a large cohort of children, adolescents, and adults we want to examine which grammatical structures are challenging for individuals with Down syndrome. Furthermore, we will present developmental trajectories of grammar comprehension analysing longitudinal data from a subset of the participants

Method: The German adaption of the Test for Reception of Grammar (TROG-D; Fox, 2011) was used to examine receptive grammatical abilities of 80 individuals with Down syndrome ranging in age from 4;6 to 40;3 years. A subsample of 17 children and adolescents was assessed twice, with 4;4 to 6;6 years between the first and second time of testing.

Results and discussion: Detailed analyses of the grammatical structures revealed various limitations in the receptive abilities across all ages. The difficulties increase with sentence length and with grammatical complexity, but are also apparent in syntactically simple sentences. The performance of the participants mainly fell in the average range of three- to five-year-old typically developing children of the norming sample. Concerning the developmental aspect, we found that the growth in TROG-D scores diminished with increasing chronological age in the investigated subsample. This observation points to a slowdown in the acquisition of receptive grammar which seems to start before the teenage years. Practical implications of our findings will be discussed.

Speaking within limits: exploring the effects of cognitive load on voice and speech in 4 young adults with Down Syndrome

Dr. Tracy Jeffery, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK

Contact: tracy.jeffery@bishopg.ac.uk


It is well-established that the quality of voice and speech reduces when excessive demands are placed upon a person’s working memory. This effect from increased cognitive load has implications for people with Down Syndrome, who already have difficulties in processing verbal information and difficulties in producing voice. To date, there is little published research that examines how increased cognitive load affects voice or speech in people with Down Syndrome. This presentation will summarise findings from 4 young adults with Down Syndrome who took part in a series of voice and speech imitation tasks of increasing complexity. Tasks included imitation of single vowel sounds, words of increasing syllabic length, nonwords, and spoken and sung phrases. The results showed clear effects of cognitive load on their spoken output as the task demands exceeded each participant’s Short Term Memory capacity, as indicated by their digit span. However, the direction of effects were not consistent as cognitive load increased, nor were they consistent between the 4 participants. The results from each participant suggested that as task-related demands increased beyond their digit spans or STM capacity, individuals limited their attention to either segmental production or to suprasegmental production. This apparent switching or limiting of attention resulted in improvements in either voice quality or aspects of speech production. The results indicate that limiting the focus of attention during auditory tasks may support speech and voice output by reducing cognitive load and stress response.