Two things we are doing to improve Jessie's (our daughter with Down syndrome) conversation skills.

Two Things We Are Doing to Improve Jessie’s Conversation Skills

To varying degrees all people with Down syndrome deal with  communication issues and speech delays.  Some struggle with articulation more than others, but all deal with speech related delays.  

Jessie speaks fairly well.  People who know her really well understand much or most of what she says.  Like many  people with Down syndrome, it requires a little patience to have a conversation with Jessie.  She may use all the right words, but they might be slightly out of order.  She may use most of the right words but leave a little something out.  She finds it frustrating when she can’t get across what it is she has on her mind to say.  

To be completely honest, she drives us all nuts talking about the same things ALL the time.  It is for both her sake and ours that we need to increase the topics that she can talk about.  It would be a completely different situation if I felt that weren’t possible, we would love and accept her exactly as she is.  But she is capable of growing in this area, it just requires some patience and intention on our part.  

She loves to talk with us.  And we sincerely want to talk with her.  It has been an ongoing process since before she could say one word that we have consistently worked with her to increase her ability to communicate and increase the topics that she can communicate about.  What this has looked like at every age has been different, but it is something that has been on our minds from the beginning.  

Some of the reasons at this age we want to increase Jessie’s ability to communicate are:

  • She is very social and loves to be with and talk to people inside and outside of her family.  
  • Other than taking her out to eat, there isn’t one thing in the world that makes Jessie happier than for you to talk with her.
  • Other people are easily bored with the few topics she can talk about so we want to increase, however much we can, what she can talk about. We don’t want it to be that she can only converse if the conversation is about her and her activities.  

Barriers to communication at this age (teenage) and what we are doing to accommodate or improve them:

Jessie processes slower- it takes her a little longer to process what you said, formulate her response and then be able to get it out.  Too often, myself included, we are don’t wait long enough to give her time to respond.  We may smooth over and go to another topic or answer for her.  It is sometimes hard to give her the time she needs, but so worth it when we do.  It’s good for her and it’s good for us.   We need to, and are trying to, purposefully (sometimes painfully) wait for her to answer.  

The topics that she has enough knowledge of to have a conversation about is limited.  She lacks a frame of reference for many things that adults or her typical peers might talk about.  

Rather than all the questions being directed to Jessie about her so that the conversation is all one sided, and let’s be honest, boring and repetitive, Jessie has learned a couple of questions to ask others to help get or keep the conversation going.

Now, we are working on being purposeful about giving her good answers to her questions so she can increase the things she knows about, so she can converse  better.

For Example:   “How is your work going?”  She asks Daddy and her sister, Jordan, this question every time she talks to them.

Instead of responding with “Good, how was your day?” we respond with something specific about our day.  “I had a fun/sweet/hard/ patient today.” or “One of my patients brought me a cake today.”  (Jordan,  PTA)  “Well, I had a problem with the computer today, but it all worked out okay.” or “I walked down the hill to see about something with Mr. Richard today.” (Daddy) These responses  give her some knowledge she didn’t have before to build on later.  She now often asks Daddy how Mr. Richard is doing.    

When talking with her friends on the phone, if I’m nearby I will coach her to ask them what (not how, so she can get a specific answer that might spark further conversation) they’ve been doing that day.

These are just simple examples.  When she was younger we were trying to stretch 3 word sentences to longer sentences.  She does well with that now.  Now, our primary focus is helping her have meaningful conversation.  Primarily, we are doing this by teaching her questions to ask the other person, and when she asks questions we try to give answers that increase her knowledge by baby steps and little bits so she doesn’t get bored but learns something new.

As a side note, I am amazed sometimes at the words Jessie will use in a correct way out of the blue.  She has learned some good vocabulary from of all places, YouTube.  She learned about “wet ingredients” and “dry ingredients” and other cooking related terminology from watching cooking shows.  She has learned about products and techniques about makeup and makeup application as well.  When she was younger she watched videos of how other girls decorated their Barbie House.  Last Christmas we had a party where she and her friends decorated cookies and swapped gifts because she had watched some kids do the same on YouTube.  

Truthfully, she has learned a lot of good and interesting things from YouTube. We have also sometimes been surprised in a less good way from some language she has heard on YouTube.  While it’s been a good tool, it’s something we have to keep a close eye on.  I can’t remember the process but there is a way to filter some of what will come up in search or be displayed.  I can’t remember the steps but found this link that looks helpful .  It won’t keep every negative influence out, but is just one step of the monitoring process.  

I hope you find this helpful.  I hope if you love someone with Down syndrome or another speech delay it will give you an idea of how you might make your conversations with them more enjoyable and at the same time help them learn to communicate better.  

Always thinking and always sharing my thoughts,


p.s.  I had the opportunity to hear James Macdonald speak several years ago.  Here is a link with some of his main ideas.  These really influenced our approach when Jessie was younger.

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