Making Sense About Speech: Sensory Integration and Speech

Speech and language are not easy skills to achieve. Before we can talk or make sense of what people are saying, our sensory foundations must be established. This explains why most kids aren’t fully conversational until around 3 years old.

For example, intelligible speech can’t happen without the cooperation of the vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (body awareness), and tactile (touch) systems who govern the fine motor movements, coordination, and motor planning of the throat, lips, and jaw. If we are to understand a conversation, our auditory (hearing) system needs to differentiate between sounds of words to not mix up what someone is communicating to us.

This all ties back to sensory integration.

Sensory integration (or sensory processing) is how our we gather information through our senses, organize the data given, and appropriately respond to our environment. All sensory systems must run smoothly and work together for us to operate at our optimal levels throughout the day. If not, our focus shifts to maintaining homeostasis. This uses up valuable energy, affecting our ability to attend, learn, or retain information.

Think about the days when you have limited sleep, stress, and hangry moments. This is similar to what it’s like for a child with sensory difficulties trying to get through their day.

Piece of the P.I.E.

Little kids:

  • Learn through participation in daily activities and routines
  • Gain independence by practicing new skills at different times with different people (a tactic known as generalization)
  • Learn while socially engaging with meaningful people in their lives

The way young children take in and respond to sensory information can significantly impact their participation, independence, and engagement (P.I.E.) in their daily activities.

Sensory challenges can also result in atypical reactions to typical experiences. A kiddo who has difficulties processing sensory information may have trouble with:

  • Developing new skills
  • Tolerating change or different environments
  • Self-regulation
  • Self-esteem
  • Academics
  • Playing with peers and interacting with others
  • Making and maintaining friendships
  • Participating in daily routines and activities

Stop, Regulate, and Listen

In order to be alert and ready for learning, a child’s brain must learn how to regulate their reactions to sensory input.

A baby may learn to self-soothe with a pacifier in their mouth, while a toddler figures out how to properly respond to a situation by looking at their parents’ reaction. But for little kids at 4-5 years old, regulation and response can be a little harder to figure out, especially at school.

When a child can’t match their response to the sensory messages they’re receiving, they are in a state of dysregulation and not in a ready state for learning.

Dysregulation comes in three forms:

  • Sensory over-responsive – getting too much input too fast (like filling a shot glass with a firehose)
    • Difficulties filtering information, becoming overwhelmed, anxious, and emotional; parents may feel like they have to walk on eggshells to prevent an outburst
  • Sensory under-responsive – taking an excessive amount of time to get enough input (like filling a large pitcher with an eye dropper)
    • Because it takes so much effort to process information, these kiddos may look withdrawn or inattentive; may prefer sedentary activities (like screen time) because it’s easier for them
  • Sensory seeking – can’t get enough input no matter how long, how intense, or how much is given (like filling a styrofoam cup with holes in the bottom)
    • It may be because the sensory input they are craving is not the one their body needs to regulate

“Regulate before you educate”

Higher-level skills like speech and language are possible only when the sensory systems are working harmoniously with one another. So, how can we get our kids sensory regulated?

  • Address interoceptive needs. Part of regulation is ensuring that our system has had enough rest, fuel (food), and time to relieve itself so that we can focus on whatever we’re doing. Make sure your child is practicing good sleep hygiene and listening to their body when it comes to hunger and using the restroom.
  • Calming strategies. If your kid is in a heightened state of arousal, try these tactics to help them calm down:
    • Rhythmic and repetitive movements lead to regulation. Provide them opportunities to zone out and find peace, like coloring, stacking blocks, using a fidget, or going for a walk.
    • Slow and steady linear movements, like swinging on a swing (make sure the eyes are right with the horizon)
    • Give them something that is predictable, like their favorite stuffed animal (because predictable means safe)
    • Quiet spaces with dim lighting
    • Soft and slow-paced music (think lo-fi)
    • Deep pressure touch and heavy work, like bear hugs or rearranging the throw pillows and blankets on the sofa
  • Alerting strategies. If your child needs a pick-me-up, experiment with these suggestions:
    • Jerky or sudden changes in directions, like spinning them around in a desk chair
    • Jumpy, up-beat music, like some Top 40 hits
    • Games with a surprise element, like hide-and-seek
    • Moving their body in multidimensional planes, like jumping, flipping, hanging upside down, etc.
  • Try something completely different. If the sensory input your child is getting is making them more disorganized (like frequent movement), try activating the other senses to bring them back to equilibrium (like moving heavy objects). For example, if they are frequently making noise (auditory system) to regulate, try giving them gum (proprioception) or a crunchy snack (proprioception/gustatory/tactile) to organize them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while these strategies can be easy to implement any time the kids are at home, they will need to eventually learn how to self-regulate at school on their own. Use time at home to experiment with these strategies and find out what works best for your kid. From there, you can work with your child’s teacher to find ways they can regulate themselves independently in the classroom.

In our next post, we discuss how movement plays a role in your child’s speech development. Stay tuned.

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Ebert, C. (2018, April 18). Sensory Integration & Speech Delays. Retrieved from seminar.
Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder.  New York, NY: A Perigee Book.

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