How long has Down Syndrome existed? Have people always had Down Syndrome? There are records of people with Down Syndrome existing for thousands of years.
Archaeologists have found statues made by tribes that lived in Central America somewhere between 1500 and 300 BC that seem to depict someone with the features of Down Syndrome. It seems, then, that Down Syndrome has always been with us, but it was not until the 1860s that anyone thought to research or name it as a particular syndrome.
Identifying Down Syndrome
John Langdon Haydon Down was the first to identify the symptoms of what is now known as Down Syndrome in 1866. Down was the head of an institution that took care of kids with mental retardation. He noticed a group of kids with the same unique facial features and developmental delays, and decided to call them “mongoloids.” This was because he thought the kids looked like people of Mongolian descent. The term “mongoloid” was later replaced with the current term of “Down syndrome.”
Down had identified the symptoms of Down syndrome, but no one could figure out the cause. Because there was no way to do genetic testing at this time, it would take about another hundred years before the true cause of Down syndrome was found. In the meantime, there were several theories popular.
In the 1890s, one doctor theorized that Down syndrome was a form of hypothyroidism. Thyroid treatment for people with Down Syndrome became standard treatment. One other theory was that babies with Down Syndrome hadn’t finished developing in the womb before being born.
Finding the Cause of Down Syndrome
In the 1930s, several scientists suggested that there might be a genetic cause to Down Syndrome – an extra 21st chromosome in the DNA – but since there was no equipment to test this theory yet, it wasn’t confirmed until the 1960s. While this was good news in some ways, it had disastrous implications in other ways.
Since doctors could now use genetic testing to tell at birth if a baby had Down syndrome, babies with the disorder were whisked away to institutions before the mothers even had a chance to bond with them. Down syndrome was viewed as so disastrous back then, that people thought that it was better to take them away to spare the parents the heartbreak of raising such a disabled child. This theory started to lose ground, though, when scientists realized that due to the lack of affection, stimulation and maternal bonds, kids with Down syndrome in institutions were even more cognitively impaired than their peers raised at home.
A Name Change and Increased Treatment Follows
In the 1960s, the term “Mongoloid” was changed to Down syndrome after Asian researchers protested the name. In the 1970s, courts all over the world determined that kids with Down syndrome had just as much a right to an education as anyone else, and laws were enacted to protect the educational rights of kids with Down syndrome.
Also in the 1970s, doctors realized that since people with Down syndrome were no longer institutionalized, they’d have to start paying more attention to their medical care. This led to great advances in the treatment of medical problems that people with Down syndrome often face, like congenital heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, and hearing problems.
The Future Holds Great Hope for Those with Down Syndrome
The research into possible treatments and even cures for Down syndrome continues today. Genetic research is being done to try to isolate which genes cause Down syndrome and come up with treatments based on this. In about 150 years, Down Syndrome went from a disorder no one knew anything about, where people who had it were warehoused in institutions and left to live out their lives with minimal care, to a recognized syndrome with many treatments developed for it.
People with Down syndrome now have many options and opportunities in life that they never had before. They can lead meaningful lives and are loved by their family and community. Who knows what the future will hold for people with Down Syndrome?