Experts believe an earlier onset of walking in Down syndrome children could affect the rest of their development, and their lives. The National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitative Research awarded a $370,000 grant to Dale and Beverly Ulrich, kinesiologists at Indiana University, several years ago to research their "dynamical systems theory" of therapeutic intervention to induce walking.
Research so far has revealed at least an eight-to-12 month improvement in the time Down syndrome babies begin taking independent steps after the Ulriches encourage them to make leg movements on a miniature, motorized treadmill.
One in 600 infants is born with the congenital condition of Down syndrome, and one of the most desired goals of parents of these children is the onset of walking. "Once walking takes place it facilitates cognition, spatial relations, communication and social ability," says Dale Ulrich. Another reward of walking, the Ulriches found, is a decrease in family stress.
One control group of babies for the Ulriches study is given the treadmill practice, while the other group does not. The Ulriches have theorized that the treadmill intervention helps babies practice stepping in a supported upright posture, which strengthens their neural organization, increases leg muscle strength and develops postural control mechanisms needed to transfer weight forward from one leg to the other.
"When babies first locomote, they begin to understand such spatial concepts as behind and around and hidden that weren't clear when they were passively moved around," explained Bev Ulrich. "When they learn to walk, they also have opportunities for more extended play skills and can manipulate toys more easily and socially interact with their peers, so it's a very important threshold."
Because all infants react best in their own environment, the Ulriches have spent a good deal of time traveling and setting up the treadmill routines in the homes of infants in their studies. The babies are videotaped every four weeks to enable the researchers to use a sophisticated video and computer system to analyze their movements.
More than 50 families have participated in three basic research studies that provided the information necessary for the treadmill intervention protocol, including studies on sensory stimulation and how that relates to motor development.