Sensory Integration and Communication

Functional communication, or the basic ability of expressing one’s needs and wants, is essential for both children and adults to interact successfully. For children with limited language skills, functional communication becomes a priority that can be established through a variety of modalities: basic signs and gestures, picture communication boards, various apps or voice-output devices, or known verbalizations and words.

In some cases, children with sensory processing difficulties have a more challenging time establishing functional communication. Sensory processing difficulties can exist on their own or co-exist with other conditions such as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is important to note that although most children with autistic spectrum disorders have difficulty with aspects of sensory processing, the reverse is not true; most children with sensory processing difficulties do not have an autism spectrum disorder.

For children with sensory processing difficulties, the foundational underpinnings of communication are disrupted, often resulting in unsuccessful or absent communicative exchanges and excessive self-directed behavior. Naturally, a lack of functional communication skills leads to frustration and undesirable behaviors (i.e., tantrums, destruction toward self, others, and/or the environment).

Within a clinical therapy setting, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists can work together to address the underlying sensory systems that may be disrupted. Oftentimes, a child with known sensory needs may demonstrate increased self-regulation, joint attention, and successful communicative exchanges during a speech therapy session directly after participating in Sensory Integration Treatment (SIT).

According to Understood, a nonprofit dedicated to learning and attention issues (Understood.org), SIT can improve sensory processing issues in children by exposing them to sensory stimulation in a structured, repetitive way. In successful cases, over time the brain adapts and allows the child to process and react to sensations more efficiently.

Michelle McCloskey, Director and Occupational Therapist at Sense-Ability, LLC Rehabilitation Center, provides the following insight on this topic:

What is Sensory Integration?

In general terms sensory integration refers to how one takes in information through all of the senses and then processes that information to in turn respond to the environment. This includes all the usual senses that people think of such as touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound, but also includes other sensory information like proprioception (knowing where your body is in space) and vestibular inputs (the sense of balance, rotation, gravitation, spatial orientation).

How Can Sensory Integration Training Help Speech?

While this depends on the individual needs of a child, in general terms it has been found that vestibular stimulation— especially when paired with proprioceptive tasks afterwards can have an impact on arousal level. Depending on the method, this can be an alerting or a calming response. As one of the most basic and strongest senses, the vestibular system works in coordination with the auditory system in the processing of auditory information. This is a critical component in language development. The use of specific sensory strategies can help facilitate language skills.

Are There Any Precautions to Consider?

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) failed to accept Sensory Processing Disorder as a distinct disorder; however, there has been a strong push for sensory-based therapies and interventions in the general public. With the internet age, many sensory-based principles are being indiscriminately used in classrooms and clinics (e.g., Fidget Spinners). While the intentions are good, SIT is not a one-size-fits-all process. The use of incorrect inputs, sequences, or strategies can actually have a negative impact on a child’s progress and behaviors. If you suspect sensory processing difficulties, it is critical that the individual be assessed by a therapist with specific training in sensory integration or, at the very least, an Occupational Therapist with some additional training in that area.

To schedule an appointment with a licensed speech-language pathologist at Speak Well Solutions call 301-769-6456 or visit: www.speakwellsolutions.com and for more information regarding Sensory Integration Therapy, contact Sense-Ability, LLC at 240-256-3711 or visit: www.senseabilitytherapy.com

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Gwen Jenkins

Gwen Jenkins, M.S. CCC-SLP is a licensed speech-language pathologist with over 15 years of experience helping children with communication difficulties. She has worked in a variety of educational and private settings treat-ing children with autism, multiple disabilities, receptive-expressive language disorders, fluency disorders, apraxia, articulation and phonological disorders, AD/HD, and learning disabilities. Gwen earned a master’s degree in hearing and speech sciences from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in special education from John Hopkins University. She joined the Speak Well Solutions team in 2010 while working in the county schools. She has a passion for empowering children by collaborating with families and other professionals within their community to create strategies for optimal success and carryover across communication environments.