It is no secret that movement is beneficial. It is touted as one of the most important daily activities to manage our mental and physical health and improve brain function. Movement for children is equally important, especially those with sensory dysfunction. Children with sensory processing difficulties have trouble understanding and interacting with the sensations in their environment. They can often become overwhelmed in unpredictable environments and consistently stay in a state of fight or flight. It is nearly impossible to learn new skills and refine skills in such distress, which is one of the reasons why learning and producing language is so difficult when children are dysregulated. In discussing sensory processing skills, we are interested in three major sensory systems that are all influenced by movement.
- The first and possibly the most important system is the vestibular system. This is our sense of movement. It is essential for regulation, managing the appropriate arousal level, and appropriate motor responses. The vestibular system develops at just 7 weeks gestation. It is located in the inner-ear and responds to movement, head position and gravitational pull. The vestibular system is important for managing tone, or the ability to hold muscle groups in place. Several speech sounds require appropriate positioning and placement, and the ability to hold muscle groups of the mouth, tongue, and cheeks in specific positions. In addition, the vestibular system is important for allowing us to use both sides of the body together. The vestibular system is also closely related to visual and auditory processing. It allows us to locate sounds and determine how important they are to pay attention to. It also allows us to follow a moving object, such as in playing catch or in reading. This skill is essential to be able to watch someone talking and mimic movements of their mouth to create specific sounds, considering littles learn to talk by imitating. Providing opportunities for vestibular input such as swinging, sliding, bouncing on a ball, spinning, and gross motor movements can all be beneficial in both regulation and speech production. When our vestibular system is dysregulated, the ability to be in that “just right” state to talk in speech and language also becomes compromised.
- The second system is the proprioceptive system. The proprioceptive system helps us determine our body’s position in space and help us grade movements, and understand body awareness. This system has the largest receptor, the skeletal muscles, which are obviously necessary for any movement! The proprioceptive system helps us determine how much to open our mouth during sound development, like which vowel sounds to use when producing words. One slight deviation can completely change the word you’re trying to use. It also provides feedback for where our muscles are in space, such as if our tongue is in the correct position to produce a specific sound. An understanding of our position in space is also necessary to motor plan gross motor actions such as walking, along with fine motor actions such as in speech. In addition, when engaging in proprioceptive activities, our brain releases serotonin (the feel good chemical) and is integral to regulation and maintaining the ‘just right’ arousal level. “Heavy work” such as pushing and pulling weighted objects, climbing, doing animal walks, and many chores provide great proprioceptive input.
- The third system is the tactile system.The tactile system provides information about our body from the environment. It detects texture, consistency and temperature. The tactile system informs us of objects in and around our mouths. If children are hyporesponsive to tactile input, they may have difficulty processing input and require increased opportunities for touch. A lot of these kiddos require tactile cues (light touch on the face) to remind them which articulator to move in order to produce a sound correctly. If they are hyperresponsive, they may have difficulty interacting with textures on the skin and in the mouth affecting feeding and the development of oral motor skills and awareness. Engaging in play in a tactile bin, such as a dried bean bin provides increased input to improve awareness of body parts. It also assists in the interpretation of various inputs on the skin.
Understanding your child’s unique sensory profile and determining if they are over or under-responsive to specific input will be helpful to determine the unique combination of sensory input they need to better understand their environment and to improve their ability to regulate. This in turn will affect speech in so many ways! Some littles require a lot of heavy work in order to vocalize (produce speech), and depending on how much heavy work they get, sometimes this even affects their volume. Kids with high sensory needs may need more input in order to use a normal speaking volume, and not just whispered speech. Even looking at pre-talking toddlers, those babies need to be regulated in order to really take in all the speech and language skills that they are exposed to at such a young age. If they are dysregulated, they have a hard time focusing on what is important to learn and practice when it comes to developing speech.