8 things to know about the often misunderstood condition, Down Syndrome

Baby Gammy is photographed here with his surrogate mother, Thai national Pattaramon Chanbua. -- PHOTO: AFP
Baby Gammy is photographed here with his surrogate mother, Thai national Pattaramon Chanbua. -- PHOTO: AFP

The recent case of an Australian couple who abandoned their baby boy, known as Gammy, after discovering he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome (DS) and congenital heart problems, has grabbed headlines. Here are 8 things to know about DS, a condition that is often misunderstood.

1. DS is a naturally occurring genetic condition

It is caused by the presence of an extra Chromosome 21. Instead of the usual two, those with Down Syndrome have three copies of the chromosome. 

2. DS causes certain differences in physical and mental characteristics. 

The additional Chromosome 21 can bring distinct physical characteristics such as low muscle tone or a flat facial profile. There is also an increased risk for certain medical conditions such as hearing loss, while motor and cognitive skills can become delayed. 

3. DS can happen to any child, regardless of demographic

Globally, the average rate of occurrence of Down Syndrome is one in every 800 births. This can happen to anyone, with demographic factors such as race having no bearing on the outcome. That said, studies have shown that the older mothers are when they conceive, the more likely it is that their child will have DS. 

4. DS is rarely hereditary

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, an organisation based in the United States, only 1 per cent of all DS cases possess a hereditary component. 

5. By far and large, people with DS are just like anyone else

Aside from the physical and mental differences caused by their condition, people with DS are just like you and me. They have unique attitude traits, varying moods and, with the right support, can carry out many of the tasks associated with a "normal" life, such as reading and studying in mainstream schools. 

6. The coping mechanisms adopted by people with DS are often mistaken for negative attitude traits

Those with DS may be resistant to change or action, and this is usually perceived as them being stubborn. However, it is more likely to be a coping mechanism that they adopt as they do not fully understand the situation or want to exert control over what is a very confusing world to them. 

7. It is possible to detect DS early

Pre-natal tests such as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS) can test for likelihood of DS. These are however highly invasive, and may occasionally cause miscarriages. In an article written for Mind Your Body, a supplement of The Straits Times, Dr Chee Jing Jye says that first trimester testing (FTS) is a more commonly used method. Taking place within weeks 11 and 14 of pregnancy, FTS involves a maternal blood test and an ultrasound scan to measure, among other parameters, the neck skin of the foetus. 

8. Although there is no cure for DS, with the proper measures, people with it can lead normal lives

There are a number of measures parents or loved ones can take to set those with DS on the road towards leading normal lives. These include a stimulating home environment, getting involved in early intervention programmes and allowing as much mainstream interaction as possible. Such measures go a long way towards allowing the person to fulfil his or her potential.