What are Sensory-Motor Challenges?

For most of us, taking in information from our environment through our senses (touch, sight, smell, taste and sound) is an automatic, smooth process. We’re able to regulate our bodies and emotions. We can adjust the way we move and behave to match the situation we’re in (we are active in a park and sit still at a restaurant, for example). We’re also aware of our bodies in space, and balance and coordination feel natural. For kids with sensory-motor challenges, those things that we take for granted can be a struggle. Here are some examples:

They may be under-sensitive and seek sensory input by

  • Moving constantly, jumping, climbing, spinning, and crashing into things or people
  • Strongly preferring play with water, sand or gooey substances
  • Biting objects or clothing
  • Applying pressure (pushing against things, wanting bear hugs)

They may be over-sensitive and avoid input by

  • Refusing to wear certain fabrics
  • Refusing to eat certain foods
  • Overreacting to loud noises
  • Shutting down in bright or busy environments

Self-regulation may be a challenge and they may have

  • Frequent mood changes or irritability without an obvious reason
  • A hard time calming down, paying attention, and going with the flow when routines change
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A hard time controlling impulses

They may struggle with planning and organization in these and other areas

  • Playing and teamwork
  • Getting dressed or tying shoes
  • Completing tasks
  • Remembering things

Balance and coordination may be difficult and they may

  • Trip or fall excessively
  • Have a hard time learning to ride a bike or play sports
  • Avoid playground equipment
  • Move stiffly

How Can Speech-Language Therapy Help a Child with Sensory-Motor Challenges?

Aside from addressing issues with articulation (forming speech sounds and putting words together), speech-language pathologists support the development of language, which goes far beyond speech. Here are the 3 main areas of language development:

Expressive Language—communicating thoughts and ideas:

  • Creating stories
  • Retelling events
  • Following steps in order
  • Generating, building, organizing and defending ideas
  • Persisting when not heard or understood

Receptive Language—understanding thoughts and ideas:

  • Understanding words, sentences and concepts
  • Following directions
  • Reading and comprehending stories
  • Taking in information from the environment and understanding its meaning

Social/Pragmatic Language—navigating relationships and non-verbal communication:

  • Initiating, making eye-contact, and listening
  • Taking turns, negotiating, and collaborating
  • Reading and using body language
  • Understanding personal space and boundaries
  • Being able to see something from another’s perspective

For a child with sensory-motor challenges, the world can feel chaotic. Expressing and understanding thoughts and ideas, and interacting with others, is hard for kids who have trouble being still, focusing, and navigating the world of textures, smells, noises, and other sensory information.

A child who struggles to learn the steps involved in getting dressed also struggles with sequential language tasks—like retelling events, or approaching someone, introducing themselves, and carrying on a back-and-forth interaction. A child who is hyper-focused on sensory input has a hard time focusing on non-verbal communication, which is a central way we express ourselves and understand others.

Speech-language therapy works alongside occupational therapy to support language development. While kids learn in occupational therapy to navigate the sensory world and their place in it, speech-language therapists support their acquisition of the language skills that help them communicate, understand social nuances, make friends, play, and thrive in relationships and at school.

Here at Integrated Children’s Therapy, we use social groups as a stepping stone from individual therapy to the real world. By carefully matching children and placing them in social groups, we can support their sensory-motor learning as well as their language learning. In the safety of this group setting, they can feel successful using the new skills that will help them navigate the world.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article with more information about our social groups. If you’re curious about how our speech, occupational, and group therapy may help your child, please give us a call!