Used with permission from Jamie Giordano (2015)
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Children with special needs such as Down Syndrome are often misunderstood but are in need of counseling services for a variety of reasons including learning emotional regulation and age appropriate social skills. With or without Down Syndrome every child like every person is unique.
One way in which to help children with special needs is to run groups focused on social skills building that includes a mix of children with and without special needs. Groups give children the chance to learn from one another and are safe places for emotional release (Stephens, Jain, & Kim, 2010). Mixing the group with children with and without special needs can help reduce stigma often associated with children with special needs (Stephens, Jain, & Kim, 2010).
Stigma contributes to the lack of understanding of how to work with children diagnosed with special needs such as Down Syndrome. One main area of focus is helping the child identify feelings and be able to relate feelings to situations in life. Although concepts that are abstract can be more difficult for the child to understand there are ways to present the information that is more concrete in nature. For example, upon entering a session, I will often have the child state how he or she is feeling at that moment. Or, have the child begin the session by drawing a picture of something that has happened since the last session. Then have the child narrate the picture which can give the therapist cues into the world of the child to help in the exploration of feelings. Children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are often able to understand more than they can express (National Down Syndrome Society, 2015). Children who lack the ability to express thoughts can act out behaviorally due to frustration of not being able to make others understand (National Down Syndrome Society, 2015).
In terms of personal experience, I worked with a little girl, Sierra. In working with her the focus was on trying to get her to articulate her feelings regarding experiences in her life. Her behavior at times did appear linked to frustration of others being unable to understand her speech or her inability at times to be able express her thoughts in a manner in which others understood. To help her open up more about her experiences art therapy based techniques were used to help her create pictures of her thoughts to help her then verbalize experiences. This allowed her mother as well to be able to help her more at home and understand her moods. Sierra also attempted a social skills group but did not find it a good fit given the make-up of the group. Based on the research by Stephens, Jain and Kim (2010), a mixed group of children would have best served her social skills development.
Down Syndrome Awareness is important so that those in the counseling field are aware of the particular needs of this population. Patience and understanding will go a long way to reduce stigma and improving outcomes for those diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
National Down Syndrome Society (2015). Speech and language therapy for children & adolescents with Down Syndrome. Retrieved from: http://www.ndss.org/Resources/Therapies-Development/Speech-Language-Therapy/Speech-Language-Therapy-for-Children--Adolescents-with-Down-Syndrome/
Stephens, D., Jain, S., & Kim, K. (2010). Group counseling: Techniques for teaching social skills to students with special needs. Education, 130(3), 509-512.
Rachel Collins, LPC is a clinical therapist working with children and adolescents in New Haven, Connecticut. Her specializations include eating disorders, self-injury and trauma related work. She has a history of writing articles, giving presentations and serving in leadership positions at the local, state, regional and national level.