Learn how sensory processing disorder and speech problems can overlap (& how to help!)
He gets upset and then I can’t understand anything he’s saying.
She’s fine until she starts to get nervous, then she just ‘shuts down.’
When he’s too excited it’s hard to get him to focus to tell me what he wants.
Do any of these remind you of a child that you know? Not sure what’s causing the problem? It could be related to sensory processing!
What is Sensory Processing?
So what is sensory processing? In a nutshell, sensory integration is how your brain makes sense of the world around you (think: smells, sounds, vision, emotions, and even how we think/feel about something). Every day, our brains have to figure out not only how to process what is going on around us, but how to process the sensory stimuli in our environments while still keeping focused on our daily activities.
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP), I’ve found that it’s not unusual for children with sensory issues or sensory processing disorder to also have speech problems. In fact, sensory integration overlaps with speech/language development in many ways.
How we’re wired…
Communication seems so easy for so many of us. But it’s actually quite complex! It’s been a few years since my neuroanatomy class in grad school, but here’s an ultra-mini-neurology lesson.
Different areas of the brain must coordinate with one another in record-time to be able to:
1 || Determine what we want to say (this is “language”)
2 || Plan how we’re going to say it (this involves skills such as grammar and sequencing)
3 || Actually produce the words correctly (getting our brains to fire the correct muscles to physically produce the speech)
That’s a lot of information that a child’s brain needs to integrate! Sometimes, if a child is not well regulated (over or under-stimulated by sensory input in the environment), we might see these communication skills begin to breakdown.
So what can an SLP do to help support children who have sensory needs or sensory processing disorder and speech problems? Well, for SLPs and parents, it’s best to rely on trained professionals for support because each child’s sensory profile will be different. OT’s have extensive training to able to determine what could be causing a child’s sensory integration difficulties. They can recommend activities specific for that child to help him or her become ready to learn.
It is important to remember that if a child is clearly not able to focus or work with you (think of children who are crying/upset, aggressive, or zipping around the room), it would be FANTASTIC to get the opinion of your nearest OT! That way you can begin to teach children how to regulate themselves (and get the most out of your therapy sessions). Which leads to the next point…
More than meets the eye?
Sometimes children who seem like they’re acting out (we all have had some friends who come to speech bouncing off the walls) might not just be acting naughty. They might have difficulties with self-regulation, difficulty with processing various sensory input, or sensory processing disorder.
In turn, this might cause their minds and bodies to have a harder time paying attention and learning. For example, a child might be so excited to go to somewhere new (places like water parks, trampoline parks, even the therapy room), that they’re not able to communicate what they want or need, or what they are thinking. I’ve had some friends who will get so overly excited and in such a heightened emotional state that they will start to become upset. In some cases, I’ve even seen individuals even go from excited to aggressive towards themselves and others.
How to Help Kids With Sensory Processing Disorder and Speech Problems
As an SLP, my main goal when working with kids who have sensory needs or sensory processing disorder and speech problems is teaching functional communication skills. Even more importantly, I want to teach the same exact skills to the child’s parents and all of the other professionals on the child’s team. Consistency is key in these situations.
For a child who is non-verbal and uses a communication system, I would teach the parents how to model, model, model on the device. This means that when the child is starting to get obviously upset, I would have the parents/adults use the device to say, “I’m mad,” “I need a break,” or “I’m scared”, then the adult should respond appropriately as if the child had spoken.
I believe that every moment is a teachable moment. However, many children we work with don’t have the skills to express their emotions when they are upset or overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli around them. That’s why it’s so important for adults to show children how to use their communication systems when they’re upset.
My main goal is to teach children the skills to avoid reaching the level of a meltdown. Therefore, I don’t like to apply unreasonable demands on children who appear to be on the verge of significant meltdowns. Instead, I like to teach specific new skills in a structured environment. Then, when children understand the skills with me (or at school or home), we can start having them use the skills in real-life situations.
Again, this is when it is great to have an OT who can suggest sensory regulation strategies to help that child cope. Once we know what strategies work for the child, we can teach the child how to communicate that they need to use the strategies.
I hope you find some of these ideas helpful! What are your best tips and tricks for supporting speech and language in kids with sensory needs? Leave us a comment below!