Using Sensory Input to Help With Speech Therapy

Using Sensory Input to Help With Speech Therapy

“Shouldn’t he be talking by now?” We were at my son’s two-year pediatrician appointment, and I finally had enough courage to voice what I’d been lying awake at night thinking: my son wasn’t talking the way his peers were.

“Well, what has he said?” she asked.

“Just this week, he said ‘truck fell down,’ but that was the only time he’s put together that many words. Normally, he says ‘ah’ for ‘water,’ and…”

“Three words together is good for a two-year-old,” the doctor replied.

And so we waited.

I worried about his obsessions with toy airplanes and his favorite garbage truck (he slept with it rather than with the adorable stuffed animals we’d received at his baby shower and beyond).

Six months later, again at the doctor’s office, I asked about his lack of language, and we got a referral to Early Intervention services.

We had an evaluation, hearing tests, and scheduled visits with local special needs preschool teachers. During this time, we received a referral for a speech therapist to come to our home.

I was nervous and relieved the morning of her visit. I spent more time than usual tucking toys into bins and studying my little boy. I wanted to see him the way she might.

I thought about one of the evaluators who’d said “I’ll tell you right now, it’s not just a speech delay.”

By then, I’d studied a bunch of books about autism, speech delays, and sensory processing issues, and still felt confused about what my son “should be” doing. The one thing I knew for sure was that he should be talking more.

His speech therapist came, and spent a few minutes asking me about my little boy. I was eager to get started and was confused when her first activity with him was to have him lie down on the floor.

“How’s this going to help with his speech?” I said.
“Oh, we have to get him ready to be receptive to it,” she said.
“He needs sensory input first.”

spikey ballI was annoyed. “We’re doing this whole thing so he’ll interact,” I thought, while watching her roll a spiky ball we’d recently gotten over his back.

I couldn’t believe that her rolling a ball over his back would help with speech therapy, and as soon as she left, I called my husband to let him know our new speech therapist was probably crazy. Definitely ineffective. 

She continued each therapy session with heavy sensory input and began having my son emulate sounds.

“O,” she said. “Just say “O, for open” as she opened the door.

You know what? It worked. Providing him with heavy sensory input before each therapy session meant that we began to see gains in his willingness to form sounds! To keep it interesting, we introduced a crash mat to his routine, which he continues to enjoy jumping on, almost five years later. 

Using sensory input to help with speech therapy was a win for my little boy. 

My son is now seven, and while he still has some pronunciation issues, he speaks, and the word for “water” is “water,” rather than “ah.” 

He’s doing really well, and when parents of two and three-year-olds reach out, asking how we were able to go from having a nonverbal son to having a second grader who plays sports and invites friends over, I tell them how it all started with a speech therapist who had him lie on the floor and roll a spiky ball over his back while I rolled my eyes at them both.

Parents of late talkers and kids with autism and/or sensory issues – did you find that similar sensory stimulation helped your children gain speech? Do you have other tips and tricks for encouraging nonverbal kids to speak? I’d love to know what worked for you!

Kristi Campbell

About the Writer:

Kristi Rieger Campbell's passion is writing and drawing stupid-looking pictures for her blog, Finding Ninee. It began with a memoir about her special-needs son Tucker, abandoned when she read that a publisher would rather shave a cat than read another memoir. Kristi writes for a variety of parenting websites including Huffington Post Parents, has been published in several popular anthologies, received 2014 BlogHer's Voice of the Year People's Choice Award, and was a proud cast member of the DC Listen to Your Mother show. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

14 thoughts on “Using Sensory Input to Help With Speech Therapy

  1. My older daughter spoke a bit on the later side. But ours turned out that she had a ton of ear wax built up. Never dawned on me that this could delay that. But once our Peditrician realized we got her in for an ENT visit where they blew her ears out. Literally hours after she was speaking more clearly and better. So you just never know what can be the cause, as well as what can help. So agree with you on this. Thanks for sharing your experience here with us.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Janine! Wow to the earwax build-up and how quickly your daughter began speaking as soon as they cleared it up for her. I think one of the frustrating things about speech delays is that there can be so many causes, so the little kids have multiple evaluations, hearing tests, etc. before people start to get help. I’ll have to add this to my list of things to check for when people ask me about my son’s experience and how we got him talking!

  2. I love that and it doesn’t surprise me. Des was an early talker, but a late walker. And even with that, a physical therapist friend suggested sensory input. It really clicked a light on in his brain.
    Gah, I love our boys.

  3. It’s amazing how sensory play and input can make so much of a difference. We started using a small kid-friendly trampoline with a bar for gripping. It’s made a world of difference. We play games with letters and jumping. It’s fun for my daughter and helps with learning.

  4. My middle son is very busy and constantly moving. He also has a small collection on things in his pocket at all times: beads, rocks, seeds, sticks, etc. And I think those things in his pocket help him to calm down and get ready to learn. I’ll gladly clean it all out of my washer and dryer every day if that’s what he needs!

    1. Rabia, Tucker always has rocks in his pockets, too! And my front porch has a gigantic stick collection of his (because they kept getting bigger and bigger so became more of a problem in the house). I hear you about it being worth cleaning out the washer and dryer!

  5. This is such good advice – our speech person is having my son do similar activities before he does any speech lessons or therapy and I was thinking she was crazy too like you were but I’m so glad to know it works although I was hoping it does. It helps to know another mom tried it and thought it was nuts so thank you. Are you the same Kristi Campell who did the speech on video about special needs moms? If so, I just saw that recently and loved it thank you so much for your help and insight to these special kids!

    1. I’m so glad that your speech therapist is using similar sensory activities before speech! I hope you’ll keep me posted on your son’s progress and that it works as well for him as it did for my little boy. And yes, I’m the same Kristi Campbell – that video was part of the Listen to Your Mother show in DC. There are tons of videos from the shows around the country. Thank you for watching and for your comment!

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