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Recent Study Findings

Mental State Language Development in Down Syndrome

Published in the American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, this study looked at how school-age children with Down syndrome learn to talk about people’s emotions, thoughts, intentions, and other mental states. Mental state language is a stepping stone for “putting oneself in another’s shoes” and learning how to interpret other people’s social cues. It is also key to expressing oneself in socially appropriate ways. We recorded children as they told stories from a picture book. We counted the words children used to describe characters’ mental states. For example, if a child said, “The boy was scared”, we counted scared as a mental state word.

Some of the children did not use any mental state vocabulary in their stories. Others used a few, and some used a lot. The children who used more mental state language were also better at recognizing other people’s emotion expressions. However, mental state language was not associated with age or IQ. This tells us that for children who have Down syndrome, mental state language is not simply a product of general development or cognitive abilities. Instead, ‘emotion knowledge’ is an important factor. We may be able to use emotion knowledge to boost mental state language. For example, parents and teachers could practice pointing out other people’s emotional expressions, labeling their emotions, and talking about how that person may feel. Future research will test these possibilities.  

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