There are many physical and mental challenges that children with Down syndrome face, including navigating their homes. As parents, caregivers, or loved ones, creating a safe and inclusive home environment is a priority. When adapting your home for a child with Down syndrome, consider practicality, emotional concerns, and the profound impact your child’s environment has on their development.
To support our research on how to achieve this, we spoke with the following experts:
- Arianna Coles, occupational therapist at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation
- Dana Sciullo, research associate at the National Down Syndrome Society
- Donna Beckmann, advocacy and outreach director of the North Carolina Down Syndrome Alliance
- Hina Mahmood, senior occupational therapist at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation
- Margot Rhondeau, senior director of Health and Wellness at the National Down Syndrome Society
Understanding Down Syndrome and How It Impacts Children
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that occurs when a person has an extra copy of chromosome 21. Typically, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell, or 46 chromosomes in total. However, individuals with Down syndrome have three copies of chromosome 21, resulting in a total of 47 chromosomes. This additional genetic material can lead to various physical and cognitive differences.
Children born with Down syndrome often exhibit physical features that are characteristic of the condition, such as almond-shaped eyes, a small nose, and a flat face. Although these distinctions are surface-level, there are also cognitive challenges associated with Down syndrome that can affect an individual’s ability to effectively navigate their surroundings. For this reason, implementing safety precautions and keeping the home clutter- and obstacle-free is paramount when adapting a space for a child with this disorder.
Creating a Space for Children with Down Syndrome
The environment in which a child lives heavily affects their development and quality of life. This is even more important when caring for a child with Down syndrome.
“Children with Down syndrome encounter various challenges, including cognitive and developmental delays, speech and language difficulties, motor skill issues, and health concerns,” explains Donna Beckmann, advocacy and outreach director for the North Carolina Down Syndrome Alliance. Here’s how to adapt your home for added security and comfort.
Because of the physical and cognitive challenges children with Down syndrome may face, safety-proofing the home is an important measure to prevent accidents and injuries.
- Childproof: Children with Down syndrome may be more curious or impulsive, and they may explore their surroundings in unique ways, thus requiring extra safety measures. “Like with all children, you will want to make sure your home is childproof,” explains Dana Sciullo, research associate at the National Down Syndrome Society. Think of installing safety locks on cabinets and drawers, using outlet covers, and using safety gates on stairs. While they’ll still be able to roam around, you’ll feel more at ease.
- Eliminate choking hazards: Many individuals with Down syndrome have oral motor challenges, including weak muscle tone. These challenges can impair their ability to chew and swallow effectively, increasing the risk of choking. Regularly inspect areas for any potential hazards, such as loose cords, sharp edges, or small objects that could be a choking hazard.
- Install safety gates: As an extra security measure, use safety gates to block off areas where your child is more likely to get hurt, such as in the kitchen, near windows, or on stairwells.
- Secure furniture and bookshelves: Children with Down syndrome may have lower muscle tone and coordination, making them more prone to accidents and falls. Objects that are heavy and easily movable are hazardous for any child, so make sure you anchor shelves, dressers, and other heavy structures to the wall.
Adapting Bathrooms and Bedrooms
Adapting bathrooms and bedrooms for children with Down syndrome requires thoughtful consideration of their unique needs and abilities. Here are some specific tips for making these spaces more accessible and supportive:
- Incorporate a calming design: Children with Down syndrome may have heightened senses, so ensure their bedrooms are as calming and comfortable as possible. Muted colors for relaxation, blackout curtains for better sleep, and soft bedding can create a more relaxing environment in your child’s bedroom.
- Install grab bars: For children with Down syndrome who are working on improving their mobility skills, grab bars can serve as handholds for support. These can be used next to the toilet and in the shower or bathtub to prevent slips and falls. Just make sure they are securely anchored to the wall.
- Lock up medications and sharp objects: Children will often touch anything they can get their hands on. Stow away at all times any medications, razors, scissors, and anything that would be toxic if ingested.
- Use nonslip mats and bath chairs: Children with Down syndrome often have issues with balance, heightening their fall risk. Outfitting your bathroom with nonslip mats and bath chairs will help prevent slips and falls.
Fostering Independence, Learning, and Development
Fostering development in children with Down syndrome requires a patient and supportive approach that recognizes their unique abilities and challenges. Here are some strategies to help promote these aspects of growth:
- Create structured spaces: Children with Down syndrome often thrive in structured routines. Knowing what comes next and having a reliable routine can help them feel safe and more in control of their environment. Ensure consistency by keeping the home organized and not moving things around often.
- Designate play areas specific to the child: “It is crucial to recognize that each child with Down syndrome is unique, and their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities will differ,” explains Beckmann. Create play areas that target various developmental skills, such as gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, cognitive skills, and sensory skills, depending on the child’s needs and interests.
- Display educational materials: Displaying educational materials in the rooms where they spend the most time provides them with visual information that supports their learning style.
- Keep frequently used items within reach: “Be aware of accessibility issues when it comes to your child’s environment,” explains Hina Mahmood, senior occupational therapist at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. “For example, placing items too high on shelves, or failing to use visuals on kitchen cabinets can make it difficult for a child to build independence and stay safe.” When essential items are within reach, children may be able to perform daily tasks and activities without asking for help.
Creating a Sensory-Friendly Space
Children with Down syndrome often have sensory processing differences, and creating a supportive environment can help them thrive. Here are some tips to help you create a sensory-friendly home:
- Create cozy spaces: Not only can you incorporate soft, comforting materials, such as pillows or weighted items, but you can also carve out a “quiet space” in your home where your child knows they can go if they feel overstimulated.
- Include personalized decor: Personalize your child’s room with their favorite colors, characters, or themes to make them feel safe and at home. This familiarity may also help reduce anxiety, making the child feel more at ease in their space.
- Incorporate sensory-friendly lighting: Children with Down syndrome may have heightened sensitivity, which can affect their perception of light and its impact on their environment. Choose soft, warm, dimmable lighting to control the level of brightness throughout your home and promote calmness, suggests Mahmood.
- Use sensory-friendly colors: “Many children with Down syndrome have vision challenges,” notes Arianna Coles, occupational therapist at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. Solid-colored surfaces, as opposed to patterned ones, offer higher visual contrast to items placed on them, making it easier for children to find things, she says. They are also less visually distracting. Choose calming and neutral colors for walls and decor to avoid overstimulation.
How to Support Children With Down Syndrome
Providing support for children with Down syndrome involves creating an inclusive, nurturing, and empowering environment that helps them be themselves.
What to Do
Devise a space that allows your child to safely have fun while exploring their unique interests. Here are some things you can do to provide support:
- Create spaces for their unique needs: Margot Rhondeau, senior director of Health and Wellness at the National Down Syndrome Society, explains the importance of having enough room for your child with Down syndrome to explore and be your best teacher in letting you know what they need. “If you have a very energetic child, you will need space for them to get out their energy. If you have a bookworm, you will want a bookshelf (attached to the wall) with books for them to explore. If you have a sensory-seeking child, providing safe areas to engage in messy and active play is important.” Your occupational therapist will also be able to help give suggestions on what they need.
- Remember to have fun: “Children with Down syndrome are children, first and foremost,” notes Rhondeau. Just as with any child, you want to make sure you’re cultivating a living space for them that is safe and allows them to have fun. Prioritize play in daily life and encourage your child to pursue their favorite activities.
- Use positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement techniques reward the child’s efforts, boosting their self-esteem and motivation. This reinforcement can come in the form of praise, high-fives, or a fun activity that will allow the child to celebrate their achievements.
- Use simple, clear language: Be concise and direct when communicating, avoiding multitasking or distractions. Make sure to give extra time for the child to process information.
What Not to Do
Discouragement and assumptions are hallmarks of an unsupportive environment. Avoid doing the following:
- Discourage them: Discouragement can damage a child’s self-esteem. As a result, they will feel restricted in exploring and developing their strengths and talents. While you want your child to be safe and healthy, it’s important to give them some freedom to develop a sense of independence.
- Force one communication style: Children with Down syndrome tend to avoid eye contact, so if this is something your child does, don’t force it upon them. Be open to various forms of communication, including nonverbal and augmentative methods.
- Leave them unsupervised: “It’s important to note that some children with Down syndrome may be prone to elopement,” explains Beckmann. Not only should you never leave them unsupervised, but you should also implement various safety measures, such as security cameras and extra locks.
- Make assumptions: Just like any other group of kids, children with Down syndrome are unique and have their own distinct personalities, abilities, and challenges. Do not make assumptions about their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, or thoughts and feelings.
Organizations That Assist People with Down Syndrome
Several organizations worldwide provide assistance, resources, and support for people with Down syndrome and their families. “Connecting with local support organizations and other parents of children with Down syndrome can be immensely valuable for parents seeking guidance and reassurance,” says Beckmann. Here are some prominent organizations that focus on Down syndrome:
The DSDN is dedicated to supporting families who have recently received a diagnosis of Down syndrome for their child. They offer private online groups for new and expectant parents.
DSi is a global organization that works to improve the quality of life for individuals with Down syndrome all over the world. They promote inclusive education, health care, and rights for individuals with Down syndrome.
Founded in 2009, GDSF has been at the forefront of advancing knowledge, health care, and inclusion for people with Down syndrome. This international foundation actively supports research focused on Down syndrome, aiming to advance scientific understanding and discover effective treatments and interventions.
Founded in 1973, NDSC is a prominent advocate for legislative and policy changes that support the rights and well-being of individuals with Down syndrome. They work at the federal, state, and local levels to effect positive change.
A well-known nonprofit organization, NDSS’s primary mission is to enhance the quality of life for individuals with Down syndrome and promote their rights, opportunities, and full participation in all aspects of society. Since its founding in 1979, NDSS has played a crucial role in advancing the rights, inclusion, and well-being of people with Down syndrome.
Children with Down syndrome face physical and cognitive challenges, but adapting your house to their needs can help mitigate one: navigating their home. Creating a space for children with Down syndrome includes safety-proofing, such as eliminating choking hazards and installing safety gates. It also requires adapting your bedrooms and bathrooms by installing grab bars, using nonslip mats, and making the space sensory-friendly with dimmable lights and solid colors.
You’ll also want to foster independence, learning, and development in the space with educational materials, structured spaces, and consistent schedules. Keep in mind that the specific adaptations you make to your home will depend on the individual needs and preferences of the child. If you can, try to involve them in setting up the space, as they will often show you what they want and need.