The Vestibular System and Speech
The vestibular system is one of the basic sensory systems. It controls equilibrium and balance, controls body movement, and facilitates the development of muscle tone. It also is one of the influencing factors in auditory language processing. While researchers aren’t entirely sure how it helps to influence these processes, it is clear there is a connection. Across the board, children who have a vestibular dysfunction also have auditory language processing difficulties.
How Does the Vestibular System Affect Auditory Processing?
The auditory and vestibular systems work together to process sensations of sound and movement. Both of these systems first begin processing input in the ear. Hearing is the body’s ability to receive sounds. The ability to receive sounds is not something a person can learn. They are either born with this ability, or they are not. While an individual may be able to hear sounds, that doesn’t mean they will be able to understand what they are hearing. The ability to comprehend those sounds is something we learn over time as we integrate vestibular sensations with the sounds we are hearing. Over time, babies begin to purposefully interact with their environments. As they do this they learn to interpret the sounds they hear, and associate them with meaning. This is called auditory processing, and there are several processes that may occur.
- Auditory Discrimination – The ability to differentiate among sounds.
- Auditory Figure (Ground Disturbance) – The ability to discriminate between sounds in the background and foreground.
- Language – The ability to use words, and symbols which represent ideas and objects, in a meaningful way.
How Does the Vestibular System Affect Expressive Language and Speech?
Receptive language is the ability to take language in through listening or reading. Expressive language is the ability to put language out into the world through writing or speaking. While speech and language are closely related, they are different. Speech is the ability of the ability to produce sound. The skills necessary to do this are dependent upon the ability of the muscles in the lips, throat, jaw, and tongue to work smoothly together. The vestibular system is influential in the motor control and planning systems that control these muscles.
If part of a child’s difficulty with auditory processing is related to a vestibular problem, then simply combining movement with language activities can be of great assistance. Speech and language therapists have reported significant success by adding the use of a swing during therapy sessions. Occupational therapists indicated an improvement in the subject’s speech and language skills when they were treated from the vestibular issue. Increasing the child’s exposure to movement during therapy can facilitate greater language gains in patient’s with this combination of issues.