Sensory Processing for Language Learning

Speech Therapy
Sensory Processing for Language Learning

The prevalence of disordered sensory integration and processing is as high as 5 to 16% in nonclinical population and 75 to 95% in autistic children (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009; Ahn et al., 2004)

What we see on the outside as problem behaviours such as the child running in circles, refusing to sit, crying constantly, distracted andnot paying attention, being defiant etc., is only the tip of an iceberg. What we cannot see are all the senses and difficulties in self-regulation that lie underneath.

It is not a common practice to use sensory integration (SI) principles in speech and language therapies; however, these principles when used rightly can bring a big deference in a child’s learning abilities. It is critical that speech language pathologists understand sensory processing disorders (SPD) and how to implement sensory processing principles in their sessions for optimal outcomes in therapy.

Sensory integration was first described by Jean Ayres in 1970s. Later in 2014, Dr Miller introduced the classification - Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) with three components, to benefit diagnosis and bring in more clarity. They are:

  1. Sensory modulation disorders
  2. Sensory discrimination disorders
  3. Sensory-based movement disorders

Children with SPD do not have adequate processing skills to receive, organise, interpret and respond to the sensory information from the environment efficiently. This can have a negative impact on a child’s attention behaviour and development.

A child with disordered sensory processing may:

  • Appear restless
  • Constantly be on the move
  • May bump into things or people
  • Have short attention span and high impulsivity
  • Display low muscle tone and appear floppy
  • Experience difficulty in gross motor and fine motor skills such as cutting, pasting, writing, buttoning, etc.
  • Walk on toes
  • Often cover ears
  • Sensitive to textures of food and/ or clothing

Some of the most common problems that children with developmental delays and disabilities experience are hyper or hypo sensitivities to sensory input - sensory inputs can be too alerting (hypersensitivity) or not working at all (hyposensitivity). Some children may experience both hypo and hyper sensitivity within the same day same hour, or within a few minutes (mixed sensitivity).

In order for a child to maximally benefit from their speech therapy sessions, s/he must be in the optimal learning zone, where they are able to emotionally stay regulated, take instructions, look at the therapist and interact. Therefore, the foremost goal in therapy must be to bring children to the optimal zone of learning by calming the hypersensitive child and alerting the hyposensitive child.

Calming inputs can help a child who is hyper sensitive and alerting inputs can help a child who is hypo sensitive to sensory inputs. Listed below are a few calming and alerting strategies to be used in therapy.

Calming strategies

  • Use a calm voice
  • Sing softly
  • Give tight hugs
  • Offer deep massages/ pressures
  • Rock child - seated on therapist’s lap
  • Use dim lights
  • Child blows bubbles
  • Have child calmly watch bubbles drop

Alerting strategies

  • Spin the child on office chair
  • Introduce jumping (bunny hop, jumping jacks, jumps on a trampoline)
  • Offer light tickles
  • Use an excited voice
  • Wiggle child’s arms
  • Stop and go games - 1,2,3… jump
  • Clapping
  • Obstacle course

Principles of Ayres’ intervention model

  • Neural plasticity makes brain change possible
  • Active participation is required for neural changes
  • Enriched environments are needed to guide neural changes (Ayres 1972)
  • Activities must use more than one sensory system
  • Activities must provide the “just right challenge” (Ayres,1979)

Engaging a child actively in the optimal learning zone with tasks that are multisensorial and the just right challenge can bring a great shift in our speech and language interventions.


Ayres, A.J., 1970. Southern California Perceptual-Motor Tests Manual. The Journal of Special Education4(1), pp.117-120.

Ayres, A.J., 1972. Types of sensory integrative dysfunction among disabled learners. American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Ayres, A.J. and Mailloux, Z., 1981. Influence of sensory integration procedures on language development. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy35(6), pp.383-390.

Ben-Sasson, A., Hen, L., Fluss, R., Cermak, S.A., Engel-Yeger, B. and Gal, E., 2009. A meta-analysis of sensory modulation symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders39(1), pp.1-11.

Schoen, S.A., Miller, L.J. and Sullivan, J.C., 2014. Measurement in sensory modulation: the sensory processing scale assessment. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy68(5), pp.522-530.






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