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Research contradicts Down’s syndrome stereotypes

Posted Nov 03 2009 10:01pm

Anyone who’s had anything to do with Down’s syndrome will have heard the stereotypes about people with DS: they’re very loving; they’re very happy; they’re very stubborn. G had been alive less than five minutes before I was told by a paediatrician that “They are very happy babies”.

Is there any truth in the suggestion that all people with Down’s syndrome share certain personality traits?

Recent research would suggest not, according to a blog post I just stumbled upon written by Pierce J Howard PhD, Managing Director of Research and Development at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte.

Howard and his colleagues have taken their personality assessment for adolescents, and translated it into a form to rate the personalities of people with Down’s syndrome. The early results suggest that people with Down’s syndrome – or Down’s syndrome individuals (DSIs) as the research put it – exhibit more varied personalities than developmentally typical individuals (DTIs).

“The standard deviations for N, E, O, and A are higher among DSIs, suggesting that there is more variability in these four areas than is found among DTIs—more extremes in behavior. More extremely neurotic individuals, and more extremely calm ones; more extremely extraverted as well as more extremely introverted; more extremely imaginative and more extremely literal; more who are extremely deferential, and more who are extremely defiant, in comparison to the DTIs.”

As Dr Howard goes on to explain, “the only supertrait that suggests LESS variability among DSIs is C, suggesting that DSIs as a group show less extremely ambitious behavior, as well as less of the opposite”. It would be interesting, as Rickismom notes in the comments, to research whether that potential lower will to achieve is natural or the result of “a society-induced resignation or hopelessness”.

The mean responses do suggest that people with Down’s syndrome are more likely to exhibit certain personality traits such as:

- “a somewhat lower level of creativity, complexity, and comfort with change”
- “a noticeably lower preference for perfectionism, focus, ambition, concentration, and methodicalness”
- “a somewhat stronger tendency to defer to others and be comfortable in the background”

However, when it comes to the big stereotype, that of happiness, the research suggests that people with Down’s syndrome are no happier than anyone else:

“the means on N and E show no difference between the DSIs and the DTIs, suggesting that levels of happiness (positive emotions dominating negative emotions) are similar.”

As Dr Howard explains, if continued research supports these early results it could have a significant impact in the way in which support services are provided to people with Down’s syndrome.

“Historically, people have assumed that DSIs were all similar behaviorally—that they all like repetition, were all moderately sociable, and so forth. This data clearly challenges those assumptions. Hence, among DSIs, we need to take individual differences into account with respect to career choices, roles in group homes, managing conflict, teaching/learning style, relationship management, motivational strategies, therapy modes, and, in short, we need to employ the same individual difference sensitivities with DSIs that we use with our developmentally typical friends, family, and associates.”

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