“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
Down Syndrome, which results from the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21, is the most common cause of intellectual disability. Because it is caused by a genetic abnormality, people most often think that the learning difficulties that are characteristic of Down Syndrome must be present from birth. Research from our lab has questioned this assumption, however, showing that while preschoolers with Down Syndrome have general cognitive delays, their learning and memory abilities are no worse than typically-developing children who are matched on mental age. In short, children with Down Syndrome may “grow into” their learning difficulties.
In these studies, we recruited 3- to 5-year-old children with Down Syndrome and typically-developing children of the same mental age. The typically-developing children had the same level of cognitive ability as the Down Syndrome children, but were younger in chronological age. The children were tested on a number of “games” to find out how good the children were at remembering things we showed them. In one of these games, we hid a toy in a box and asked the children to find the toy after two minutes. We then hid another toy in the box and had children remember where it was 24 hour later. In another task we showed the children how to put together a toy rattle in 3 steps. The next day we asked children to imitate the actions that we used to make the rattle.
The results showed that when compared to children who had the same mental age, preschoolers with Down Syndrome did not exhibit any learning and memory impairments. Children with Down Syndrome were just as likely to find the toy that was hidden in the box after a delay, and remembered the same number of actions that were required to assemble the rattle.
These results are important because they highlight that the preschool years may be an important period for early intervention for children with Down Syndrome. Future research will determine whether it is possible to design interventions that would allow children’s learning development abilities keep pace with their cognitive development, thus preventing the disproportionate learning impairments that are common in Down Syndrome.
Lynette Roberts conducted this research as part of her PhD thesis. The work was published in Developmental Science and you can watch Lynette talking about it here. If you are interested in participating in research looking at learning and memory development in typically developing infants and children, or know anyone who might me, join our Baby Scientists here.
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.