Down's Syndrome and computing

Smiling boy with Down's syndromeDown's syndrome (also known as Down Syndrome) is a genetic condition that may often cause some level of learning disability and can include characteristic physical features. There are over 40,000 people of all ages in the UK with the condition.

Modern technology can be a big help for people with Down’s syndrome, and many already use modern information technology - in fact a 2015 survey found that 83% use a laptop or PC, 77% a tablet and 55% a smartphone. Smartphones and tablets provide apps that enable people to better orient themselves when travelling, to remember appointments, remind them to take their medicine or stay in permanent contact with their caregivers. All of which encourages greater independence.

Benefits for children

A number of benefits of computer-assisted learning for children with Down’s syndrome have been suggested by a variety of authors.

  • Improving motivation: The learning experience is enhanced with pictures, sounds and animation which may increase a child's interest and attention
  • Multi-sensory experience: Computers provide both visual and auditory input. Children with Down’s syndrome are 'visual learners'. ICT is particularly well suited to this learning style
  • Non-verbal mode of response: Children are able to give non-verbal responses, enabling them to demonstrate their understanding without having to produce a spoken response, which may be particularly difficult for them due to troubles with articulation, word finding and intelligibility
  • Being in control: Children begin to understand that they can have an effect on their surroundings through 'cause and effect' software; this sense of being in control develops further as children start to use familiar programs unassisted; self-esteem develops as they become more independent in their learning and presentation improves
  • Immediate feedback: Children are rewarded for their successes immediately, e.g. with pictures, sound effects or music, or prompted if they need to try again
  • Errorless learning: Software can be designed in such a way that the child is supported in order to achieve repeated success
  • Opportunities for practice: Children with Down’s syndrome need much more practice to acquire new skills and ICT can provide as many opportunities as necessary to repeat the same objective in exactly the same way
  • Self-paced learning: The child is able to proceed as fast or as slow as he or she wishes; the computer will 'wait' for the child to respond without prompting them before they have had time to fully process the information and construct their response

Ergonomic equipment changes

Most people with Down’s syndrome are able to use the keyboard and mouse with practice. However, first-time users may benefit from adapted keyboards, touch screens, and overlays. Lower case stickers for the keyboard are available for children unfamiliar with capital letters.

For more information on adapting your computer use My Computer My Way, AbilityNet's interactive guide to all the many ways you can change settings in your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Software

Mind mapping software, such as Freemind or Inspiration, is useful for making notes on content that you want to include in your work. You can also get software to speak text out for you.

One of the ways that people who have Down’s syndrome communicate is via Makaton which is a sign language vocabulary. There are Makaton-based apps which will run on an iPad, although please note this is not free.

Education

Single task software is great for error free learning; simple matching exercises; simple puzzle programmes; simple sequencing. Early year’s games software using song and rhyme is very popular with children with Down’s syndrome and plenty of opportunities for these types of activity are available in Flash. The hugely popular Interactive Visual Timetable software and Talking and Listening begins to explore the use of the recorded voice to aid with productive language skills and enunciation.

Speech intelligibility is usually a difficulty for children with Down’s and hearing impairment is common. A great deal of evidence suggests that 'teaching reading to teach talking' is possibly the most important intervention to support speech and language development.

The Reading and Language Intervention for Children with Down’s Syndrome (RLI) is an evidence-based programme designed to teach key reading and language skills to children with Down’s syndrome. It follows a prescribed framework within which content and teaching are tailored to meet individual needs. (http://www.dseinternational.org/en-gb/resources/teaching/rli/).

Spell checkers should be used with caution as they can not pick up an incorrect spelling if it is in fact a real word. Inclusive Writer and Writing with Symbols, which are examples of talking word processors, offer an imaginative solution; spellings have pictures to help the user to access the specific spelling that they need.

Case study: Michael builds his computing skills

Michael (16) has Down’s syndrome and a moderate learning disability. When Michael was 10, his school purchased a BBC computer for each classroom. He began to have successful interactions with the computer using the space bar, return key and arrows keys to manipulate cause effect programs as well as pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs. When his classroom got a stand alone PC, Michael was exposed to a variety of more interactive software which used colour, graphics, animation and sound.

At 16, Michael has now a variety of skills using computer technology. He can access whatever CD-ROM software he wants to use and can open and shut down the computer successfully. He can type his name and address proficiently. His teacher has inputted vocabulary to the Clicker Plus grid – a supportive writing and multimedia tool which allows him to write and print his daily news. Using the program he can also access other vocabulary which has been inputted and he can create and produce simple stories.

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