Pictures of our multi sensory room at Laurentian University
In my last post, I wrote about specific language impairment (SLI) and ADHD. I also wrote about how SLI often coexists with other non-linguistic deficits such as cognitive impairments, social difficulties, literacy deficits and working memory problems, among others. In fact, SLI often co-occurs with other disorders and some researchers suggest using a broader term such as neurodevelopment disability to account for all of the difficulties that may coexist. In this post, I would like to address sensory modulation as one of the disorders that coincide with SLI.
What is sensory modulation? In a nutshell, our brain allows us to receive, organize and interpret sensory input; be it auditory (sound), visual (vision), vestibular (balance), tactile (touch) or proprioceptive (sensing our own body in space). Some children have difficulties processing sensory information from their own body and from their environment. Sensory modulation is the process by which the nervous system regulates neural messages (from our sense) about different sensory stimuli around us. Children with sensory modulation difficulties will either respond to stimuli that typically developing children can ignore (ex. background noise). This is called sensory over-responsivity. On the other hand, they can sometimes show a lack of response to certain stimuli. For example, they may appear to be ignoring sounds or even verbal instructions. Finally, some kids are sensory seeking and/or craving in that they love touching things or watching bright lights, for example.
Our ability to modulate sensory information allows us to generate an appropriate response that matches the demands and expectations of the environment. For example, if we walk into a room with a fan blowing nearby or a radio playing in the background, our bodies will often get used to the sensation of air blowing on our skin or to the sound of the music, allowing us to carry-on with whatever task we were about to complete. This is not always the case for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
Children with SLI often have difficulties processing auditory input, learning the rules of language and registering the different contexts for language. They often have poor social skills, a lack of attention, difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, poor short term memory, difficulties with planning, organizing and sequencing thoughts, as well as problems with beginning and completing tasks. Adding to that, difficulties modulating the amount of sensory input they receive makes it that much more difficult for them to learn language. In fact, researchers have found that speech and language are an end product of sensory integration.
Learning language involves more than just learning words. Language is social. In order to understand the context of a message, we need to process the information around us, be it facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture, hand movements, environmental cues, others’ intentions, etc. Children who have difficulties with sensory modulation often have difficulties understanding language. Who would have thought that language was so complicated?
Looking at a child’s sensory modulation abilities could be helpful in determining a differential diagnosis for children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities. As I mentioned, children with SLI, autism and ADHD all have difficulties with speech and language, but research has shown that all three have different sensory processing issues.
Within the context of a research study, my grad student and I have recently created a multisensory room in which we provide speech and language intervention using a multisensory approach to children who are diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. I have included some pictures in this post for you to take a peek. Using the Sensory Profile, a questionnaire completed by the parents, we are able to adjust the sensory input we provide according to the child’s likes and dislikes. This room offers various sensory experiences, within an atmosphere of trust and relaxation, all the while stimulating or calming the senses. Multisensory environments have been used in physiotherapy and occupational therapy; however, research showing the efficacy of this approach in the field of speech and language therapy is scarce. For that reason, we are very excited about this study, and I can’t wait to try it with kids who have SLI! I know for a fact that my daughter would LOVE it in there!
Inside this room we are able to work on narrative skills using objects and kinesthetic sand and water. The squishy sand often helps those who are tactile seeking. We are also able to adjust the lights to represent the time of day when the story is taking place. In fact, we adjust the lights according to the child’s sensory needs. We also have been using large puppets to create scenarios of social situations to address social thinking. We also use the mirror wall to practice facial expressions! The room is also useful for teaching social rules. It is a very different approach and takes some getting used to, but children are responding well to the multisensory room and are very engaged. We’ve included an aquarium with a fish to help teach responsibilities and to talk about expected and unexpected behaviors (i.e. with animals). With the help of textiles around the room, we are able to target semantic skills by categorizing objects according to how they look, how they feel and where they belong. There’s actually a lot going on in the room, but the sensory input relaxes the children, be it through dim lights, soft music or lavender essence. The children are able to focus on the tasks at hand in a very informal environment, which is very different for kids (and for Speech and language pathologists) who have been in session after session of traditional speech and language therapy intervention in a formal, school-like setting. This is still very new but I just had to share it with you! Through my research and my own personal experience, I learn a little bit more about SLI each day. One thing is for sure, if tapping into the different senses has a potential to help these kids learn, then I think that we should revisit traditional speech and language intervention and learn more about children's sensory profiles and needs. This in turn, might just help us help kids with SLI and other communication disorders make sense of the complicated world around us. We are social beings after all and we communicate using ALL of our senses so why not use all of the senses to teach language? Food for thought! I will keep you posted on the results of this study so stay tuned! Until then, thanks for reading!
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2015
My next post will be on July 28th. I will write about my experience and findings from the Child Language Symposium, Coventry, UK.