The upside to Down Syndrome

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This article is the story of how the mind of a person with Down Syndrome plays with numbers, equations and logic giving proof against long-held myth of inability to do think up and understand abstract concepts

“What is 5+5?” 10-year-old Ruth’s mathematics teacher asked her.

“Umm…it is 25!” she replied after a bit of thinking.

An answer like that is enough to send the parent of any 10-year-old down a dizzying spiral of shame and worry, but not Ruth’s mom. You see, Ruth is no ordinary child. She has Down Syndrome, one of the most common genetic origins of Intellectual Disability (ID) [1]. An intellectual disability is supposedly debilitating. Persons with ID are considered poor at abstract thinking, which helps us solve problems, create solutions, and imagine fantasy worlds like Harry Potter.

For years, teachers and policymakers have believed that persons with Down Syndrome are incapable of grasping abstract ideas and therefore mathematics, which is also an abstract concept. The numbers, symbols, equations, and concepts have all come to be thanks to the human imagination.

They have wondered if algebra, though useful in daily life, can be or should be taught to “these students” at all. This has led to poor educational opportunities and, thus, poor work opportunities for persons with Down Syndrome.

But is this really the case? Are children with intellectual disability (ID), including those with Down Syndrome, incapable of abstract thinking? Can they do math, apply it from a semantic space?

To answer this, let’s turn to Ruth’s mom — Dr Rhonda Faragher, a mathematics teacher and the world’s leading expert on educational needs of children with Down Syndrome. Thanks to people like her we know much more about the mental capabilities of persons with Down Syndrome (and through it other IDs) than ever before.

Dr Faragher is not in the least bit worried that her 10-year-old could not do simple addition, and she says neither should you despite the damning, yet popular research out there.


When I started learning about how the mind of persons with Down Syndrome functions, I came across studies that painted a very sorry picture. These studies were replete with stories of teenagers who could not count properly, do simple addition, subtraction and/or multiplication. Research upon research has worked to understand the cognitive difference of persons with Down Syndrome, how they have poor working memory [2] — the ability to hold information for a short while and manipulate it. You can well imagine how important working memory is for mental calculations.

Such findings are enough for many public officials to conclude that it is not worthwhile to invest in teaching math, or anything at all barring vocational skills, to persons with intellectual disabilities who are often not considered fully thinking beings with aspirations and a full range of emotions.

It’s not just the researchers and officials, the public at large also holds many negative views about the abilities of persons with Down Syndrome. In a 2011 British survey [3], researchers found that up to 27 per cent of the youth respondents were unwilling to work on group projects alongside students with Down Syndrome. A staggering 40 per cent said they would not be willing to spend time with a student with Down syndrome outside of school. 40 per cent! Let that sink in.

Though shocking at first glance, I believe there’s a good explanation for it. Our societies and cultures are obsessed with efficiency and return on investment. We have designed systems that define progress in terms of productivity.

Even though we are slowly acknowledging cognitive diversity in the typically functioning population and trying to accommodate it, such understanding is not extended yet to persons with IDs outside their immediate community. The larger assumption is that all persons with ID have the same intellectual capacity which cannot be changed.

Thankfully, ideas have been shifting in the past two decades.


Countries such as Italy have ensured that children with special needs can’t be denied admission in mainstream schools. This led to many interesting cases of kids with Down Syndrome who far surpassed the expectation of their teachers and parents. Such anecdotal evidence allowed many researchers to turn the spotlight on understanding the intellectual strengths of persons with Down Syndrome. Their work is shifting the narrative around what persons with Down Syndrome are capable of and its extent.

Let’s take a look at this worksheet as an example.

Image source : Learning mathematics in mainstream secondary schools: experiences of students with Down’s syndrome

This is the work of 16-year-old Martina, a girl with Down Syndrome.
Believe it or not, Martina was able to solve fractions, percentages, do analytical geometry and algebra [4]. She gave a three-hour test alongside her classmates without taking a break or losing much focus, and answered all questions correctly!

If you’re thinking that Martina is an exception, a “high functioning” case capable of processing abstract thought, nothing could be further from the truth.

Just a few months before this “miracle”, Martina was unable to even count till 10. She had severe verbal and mathematical learning challenges. In short, her mathematical capabilities did not differ much from societal perception. How then was she able to achieve such a turnaround?

Simple, her teacher never asked her to do something she couldn’t i.e. count.
Martina’s teacher, the tenacious and patient Nives Benedetti, along with other researchers asked a simple question: Are kids with Down Syndrome bad at maths or are they just bad at counting and mental calculations? After all, many parents of children with Down Syndrome have observed how logical their kids are. Why can’t they apply that logic — a function of semantic abstract thinking — to math as well?

Researchers set out to answer this question by teaching these kids the use of calculators. What they found is that Down Syndrome doesn’t destroy one’s ability to understand the concept of numbers, or equations. What it affects is the ability to do calculations, either mentally or on paper [5]. This particular condition is known as Dyscalculia, or the “inability to do calculations”. So when the kids are given a tool to help them deal with calculations, they are able to pick up even advanced mathematical concepts, though the pace is slower than typically developing children.


Mathematician Dr Monari Martinez argues that these results pose a strong challenge to the age-old idea that persons with intellectual disability, including Down Syndrome, can never develop abstract thinking [3]. They can!

Martina learned to use the calculator all by herself, and went on to learn use of a scientific calculator. She is able to compute complex algebraic equations using it. As Martina improved at maths, her confidence and self-esteem grew as well. Her teachers observed that her performance in literature improved as well.

Inspired by stories like Martina’s, the researchers conducted more such experiments with small groups of students with Down Syndrome, and found similar results [6]. These kids were able to pick up the concepts of fractions, percentages, etc once they learnt how to use a calculator. While learning these concepts they faced difficulties in areas similar to those faced by typically developing children, i.e, they had academically “caught up” with their chronological peers.

Some people believe that bypassing mental calculations is a bad idea, and that children who never learn to calculate can never learn advanced topics. To them, Dr Rhonda Faragher asks, “Would you ask someone to learn to see before you let them wear spectacles?”.

She drives home the point that kids with intellectual disability are not the same but they can attain their highest potential with some tools, they can function with the world, not just in it, and that they are not “damned”.

Ruth, the 10-year-old who couldn’t add 5 and 5, is now an adult, and is living independently. She works in child care, and looks after herself [7].

All this was made possible because her mother wasn’t perturbed by her inability to do simple additions. The system helped her to continue studying in a mainstream school that allowed her to progress in her own way and time, and because of researchers like Dr Rhonda, Dr Martinez and others. They have dedicated their lives to exploring the uniquely beautiful mind of a person with Down Syndrome, and potentially other intellectual disabilities.


Despite this body of work with far-reaching effects, we are only beginning to unravel the myths surrounding Down Syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Intellectual Disability remains an under researched field within which Down Syndrome has received more attention than other causes of ID. A lot more work is needed to understand how their brain differs from that of a typical person.

Till then, we must remember that the environment plays an extremely important role in developing one’s intellect and creativity.

Education changes our brain [8], deeply influences our thinking [9] and helps us push the boundaries of our intellect. By denying students with IDs access to intellectual challenges, like in an inclusive educational environment, we are denying them the opportunity to grow their intellect and reach their full potential, which is a basic human right.

In its quest to produce efficient workers, our industry-driven society has been side-lining people with Intellectual Disability like faulty products on the assembly line. Many of these so-called “defective” individuals have gone on to become great artists, activists and entrepreneurs [10]. Can such accomplishments be achieved without higher order thinking? Without an ability to reason and unravel the abstract? This begs us to review our viewpoint of those among us who are cognitively different.

 ~ Written by Shivam Bohra for The Sarvodya Collective.

Disclaimer: The Sarvodya Collective believes in diversity and the value of all humans for who they are and what they have to offer. Our thought-starter articles traverse the wide landscape of societal views and do — specifically for the purpose of highlighting beliefs, mindsets and common parlance that needs change — use terms known to be derogatory for the community. It is our earnest hope that the reader will perceive such usage accordingly.



[2]: Chapman, R. S., & Hesketh, L. J. (2000). Behavioral phenotype of individuals with Down syndrome. Mental retardation and developmental disabilities research reviews, 6(2), 84-95.

[3] Pace, J. E., Shin, M., & Rasmussen, S. A. (2010). Understanding attitudes toward people with Down syndrome. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, 152(9), 2185-2192.

[4]: Monari Martinez, E., & Benedetti, N. (2011). Learning mathematics in mainstream secondary schools: Experiences of students with Down’s syndrome. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26(4), 531-540.


[6]:Monari Martinez, E., & Pellegrini, K. (2010). Algebra and problem‐solving in Down syndrome: a study with 15 teenagers. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(1), 13-29.



[9]: de Oliveira, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2017). Culture changes how we think about thinking: From “Human Inference” to “Geography of Thought”. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(5), 782-790.


Meet the author

Shivam Bohra is a cognitive science researcher, writer and a teacher. He uses his training in psychology and cognitive science to understand the motivations and irrationalities of the human mind — the basis of the massive systems on which our societal world is built. He studies the human mind as a way to decode why these solution systems also fail us.