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The Role of OT With Persons With Down Syndrome

Family with 2 boys, 1 with Down syndrome
Stephanie Yamkovenko

Although October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, occupational therapy practitioners work with this population every day of the year. One in every 733 babies born in the U.S., or 400,000 Americans, has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that alters the course of development and can cause cognitive delays (National Down Syndrome Society, 2008).  

Occupational therapy practitioners work with persons with Down syndrome to help them master skills for independence through self-care like feeding and dressing, fine and gross motor skills, school performance, and play and leisure activities.

Research, education, and advocacy have led to advances in therapy, which have had a huge effect on the opportunities available to individuals with Down syndrome. The life expectancy has increased dramatically in recent decades—from 25 years old  in 1983 to 60 years old today—and people with Down syndrome are graduating high school, going to college, participating in social and recreational activities in their communities, making up a vibrant part of the workforce, living independently, and advocating for their rights.

Occupational therapy practitioners guide individuals with Down syndrome and their families to help them reach their potential throughout the life span. Occupational therapy intervention should begin as soon as a diagnosis of Down syndrome is established, and should continue throughout the individual’s life.

During infancy, occupational therapy practitioners can help mothers whose children are having feeding problems because of weak muscles in their cheeks, tongue, and lips. During early childhood, therapy can focus on mastering motor skills for independence, focusing on low muscle tone, loose ligaments at the joints, and visual and auditory deficits (Bruni, 2001).

“A therapist can help parents place expectations that are appropriate to the ability of the child,” says Asha Asher, MA, OTR/L, chairperson of AOTA’s Developmental Disabilities Special Interest Section (DDSIS). “[An occupational therapy practitioner] can suggest positioning or adaptations that might help the child become more independent.”

School-aged children with Down syndrome benefit from an occupational therapy practitioner’s ability to address self-care skills like zipping a jacket, and fine and gross motor skills like cutting with scissors or completing multistep classroom routines to facilitate participation in school activities.

Occupational therapy practitioners can also assist in the classroom by enhancing the child’s communication skills through printing, handwriting, and keyboarding. Other issues addressed are adaptations to the classroom—such as the position of desks and chairs—for optimal performance, based on the child’s physical abilities (Bruni, 2001).

Adults with Down syndrome benefit from occupational therapy in finding and retaining productive work, learning independent living skills, and participating in active recreation for health maintenance.

“People with Down syndrome, like everyone else, are people first, each with their own unique gifts to contribute,” says National Down Syndrome Society President John Colman. “Down syndrome awareness month provides a forum for dispelling stereotypes, educating the general public about their many abilities, and raising awareness for people with Down syndrome.”

Occupational therapy can play an important role in assisting individuals with Down syndrome from diagnosis to adulthood. “Occupational therapy helps individuals with Down syndrome by creating programs to develop and utilize skills across the lifespan,” says Asher. “[This enables] them to live life to its fullest.”

Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.

Reference

Bruni, M. (2001). Occupational therapy and the child with Down syndrome. Retrieved October 3, 2008, from http://www.ds-health.com/occther.htm

National Down Syndrome Society. (2008). October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Retrieved October 3, 2008, from http://www.ndss.org/images/stories/NDSSresources/pdfs/octoberdownsyndrome.pdf