Why Isn’t My Child Talking? An OT’s Perspective


Why isn’t my child talking?

Although you may think this question is only for a speech therapist, occupational therapy may provide some answers, as well. I frequently notice a child start to babble and talk more as I work with them in the gym and on the swings.

Why does this happen?

Occupational therapists help children find their optimal level of attention so they are able to learn and process information. Imagine a car with its engine idling at a faster rate than is normal – the car would not do well on hills and would idle noisily at the traffic lights. You might feel scared to drive the car, wondering if it might “take off” suddenly and without warning. Conversely, if a car’s engine speed was too slow, you’d be worried that it would stop unexpectedly or stall out on a hill or in traffic, possibly causing an accident. You might continually change your route to try to avoid traffic or hills.

Occupational therapists often refer to a child’s “engine speed” and how it may be running too fast or too slow. Imagine a child whose engine is running too fast and what that might look like:

  • A child knows he shouldn’t be running in the grocery store but can’t stop himself.
  • A child knows she needs to be careful at the playground but she’s too excited to wait her turn or watch out for other children.

Imagine this same child with the too-fast engine in school or in therapy, expected to sit still, understand directions, formulate questions, remember word order, and articulate sounds. The odds of the child being successful are slim.

How does “engine speed” affect language development?

In order to learn and process speech and language, our sensory systems need to be balanced. Our bodies will attempt to create and maintain sensory balance before attempting higher level skills such as learning to talk, catching a ball, writing, or completing puzzles. Even adults have this need – how many people do you know who claim they can’t function without a cup of coffee first? 😉 That morning cup of coffee helps “rev up” the engine.

What does this mean for my child who is not talking?

Observe your child moving around at home or the playground. Is he attempting to talk more during or after these play times? Does he appear to be processing language better and understanding more? If so, try to provide speech and language opportunities for your child that include movement. If your child is in speech therapy, share what you have observed with your therapist and give her suggestions on activities she can do with your child to help balance his sensory system and facilitate his language.

Finally, if you have observed difficulty with sensory processing, you may consider an evaluation by an occupational therapist. Your child may benefit from both speech and occupational therapy at the same time, but sometimes occupational therapy is used to help a child achieve a more balanced sensory system BEFORE speech therapy is introduced. Either way, our goal is to improve your child’s language so he can communicate.

Jill Ronske, BS, OTR/L

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