Signs of Cognitive Change in Adolescents and Young Adults with Intellectual Disability
This study was conducted by the Conners Lab at The University of Alabama as a pilot study for a potential grant-funded study in the future. One characteristic of Down syndrome is accelerated aging, which can include declines in memory and other cognitive skills. Another is heightened risk for Alzheimer’s Dementia. In this study, we are trying to identify very early signs of cognitive change in people with intellectual disability. Identifying these could lead to future treatments that could slow the decline. The goals of the study are 1) to identify early changes in memory and language, 2) to identify early behavioral changes (like sleep patterns and social engagement), and 3) to link the first two goals to symptoms of mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is a diagnosable condition and a risk factor for Alzheimer’s Dementia.
Configural Knowledge in People with Down Syndrome
Previous research suggests that young adults with Down syndrome often struggle with learning the layout of a place after traveling through it, or wayfinding. This is an important skill because it allows us to find new routes, take shortcuts, and orient when lost. Zach’s dissertation study sought to understand how this difficulty emerges over multiple exposures to a new environment. To do this, participants traveled through a virtual environment, then were asked to try to find a shortcut. The game was repeated three times to see how they perform with new exposures.
Zach tested 20 young adults with Down syndrome (many from the registry – thank you all!), 17 typically developing children, and 27 typically developing adults. The findings suggest that the participants with Down syndrome struggled to find a shortcut after each exposure to the environment compared to typical adults. Also, participants with Down syndrome did not improve after initial exposure whereas the typically developing children did.
These findings could be used to create wayfinding programs for people with Down syndrome. Perhaps focusing on specific cognitive strategies or using technology to assist learning could improve wayfinding skills. This, in turn, would hopefully lead to more opportunities for independence for young adults with Down syndrome. From this research, Zach was able to obtain his PhD in Cognitive and Developmental Psychology!
Modeling the Relationships Among Sustained Attention, Short-Term Memory, and Language in Down Syndrome
Language can be a challenge for youth with Down syndrome (DS). Gayle’s dissertation study sought to determine if reasons for this language difficulty in Down syndrome include sustained attention (the ability to maintain attention over time), and short-term memory (the temporary storage and retrieval of information in memory).
Gayle tested 37 participants (many from the registry – thank you all!) and found that sustained attention to auditory information (e.g., spoken language) predicted language through short-term memory of auditory information. In other words, youth with Down syndrome sustain attention to language, then crucially hold the attended information into short-term memory, to eventually learn language.
These findings hold potential implications for language therapy with youth with Down syndrome. Perhaps addressing auditory sustained attention in language therapy with youth with Down syndrome could improve outcomes, though this idea needs to be tested with additional research. From this research Gayle was able to obtain her PhD in Developmental Psychology!
Wayfinding Skills in Youth with Down Syndrome: What Parents Say
Dr. Yingying “Jennifer” Yang conducted an online survey to gather feedback from parents of children with Down syndrome (DS) about their child’s ability to navigate their environment, a skill known as wayfinding. Past studies have shown that wayfinding is difficult for people with DS, however little is known about their real-life wayfinding abilities. Many registry families participated in this study – thank you!
Dr. Yang’s study focused on 86 parents of young people with DS between the ages of 12-25. Participants completed an online survey on their children’s wayfinding behaviors and also provided some of their own feelings and expectations about their children’s wayfinding ability and wayfinding confidence.
There were several interesting findings from this study. Parents reported that their children had limited wayfinding knowledge, yet the children were very confident in their own wayfinding abilities. Over half of parents planned to teach their children wayfinding skills or had already done so; roughly 1/3 of parents did not plan on teaching these skills. A majority of parents were concerned about their children getting lost at least sometimes. Parents who reported lower levels of concern had taught their children some wayfinding skills and reported better wayfinding skills in their children. Future studies will need to focus on social and safety concerns, as well as cognitive aspects of wayfinding.
This study will be published in the Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability. Co-authors with Jennifer Yang are Gayle. G. Faught, and Edward C. Merrill.
Victimization in Adolescents with Down Syndrome: The Impact of Communication and Emotion Regulation
Much of the research with individuals with Down syndrome and has focused on cognitive and medical topics. Whereas this research is definitely very important, social experiences have been largely ignored. This project was done in order to start adding to our knowledge about peer relationships in those with Down syndrome. We suspect that common struggles of those with Down syndrome, like communication, could make those with Down syndrome more vulnerable to being victimized. In other words, we thought that communication struggles could increase the chance that someone with Down syndrome is bullied. To test this we asked both parents and children to complete questions and tasks about their communication ability and experiences with peers.
Jenna tested 23 adolescents with Down syndrome (a HUGE thank you to all who participated!) to investigate this question. The findings from this study begin to suggest that
communication ability is related fairly strongly to how much someone is victimized. This finding applies to intelligibility (how understandable speech is) and pragmatic ability (how much someone follows social rules). It is important to remember that these findings are very preliminary and quite a bit more research needs to be done in order to verify and fully understand these findings! However, from this research, we have started new research projects to better understand how kids with Down syndrome get along with their peers. In the future, we hope to be able to use the findings from this study along with findings from other studies to help support inclusive and positive peer relations. From this study, Jenna was able to earn her Master’s degree in Developmental Psychology!