As a speech pathologist, I have come across families who swear by the impact of oral motor exercises on their child’s development and learning. While I have no doubt that there is truth in their statements (kids are remarkable), it is important to explore what the research says on the topic and to consider how we can make the most of our time working with our kids.
What exactly are oral motor exercises? They are tasks designed to increase the strength, coordination, and in some cases, sensory awareness of the muscles involved in eating and speaking.
Current research does not indicate that oral motor exercises in isolation lead to the development of speech for children.
This is important, folks! To illustrate this, you would not walk around bouncing your hand up and down in the air, to learn how to dribble a basketball. To maximize your child’s learning, the information that supports these tasks must be functional.
Let’s view developing these oral motor skills as a tool in your toolbox, and explore what they can support and help build.
Skills oral motor exercises support:
- Imitation – help foster learning during the back and forth practice
- Joint attention – make this fun, engaging, and social!
- Expanding awareness of mouth – including lips and tongue positioning
- Grow oral awareness – build skills to support sensory integration
- Helping practice functional speech sounds/words
- Coordination of oral motor movements – things like tongue placement and strengthening chewing (for kids who struggle with motor planning)
While all of the above-mentioned skills are important, building oral motor skills is likely most important when supporting children with autism with emerging speech skills, sensory seeking oral behaviors, and/or building early joint attention/imitation skills.
There are many activities to help grow oral motor skills that can easily be implemented at home with your child.
Activities for children with autism seeking increased oral input
Does your child enjoy putting toys in their mouth, or chews on his/her shirt, prone to biting? These could all be linked to a sensory-seeking profile. Consider trying these oral motor activities:
- Electric toothbrushes – quick way to get a safe, buzzy sensation orally. Encourage your child to place toothbrush not only on teeth but on lips and tongue as well
- Raw/crunchy foods – when possible, cut food into long and skinny pieces (think veggie stick shape), to help get that crunch all the way into the back of the mouth. Model big, crunchy chewing
- Chewy necklaces – a great option for kids who like the comfort of having something in their mouth, and bonus, they’re typically dishwasher safe (easy cleaning!)
- Gum or suckers – if your child is safe with gum, it’s a great option to really work the cheek muscles and tongue while providing sensory input. A local occupational therapist I know refers to suckers as “mouth organizers”
- Create an accessible stash of oral motor activities for your child – as your child grows to know their own sensory profile, provide access to regulatory tools
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Oral motor exercises for building muscle strength and imitation skills
Does your child struggle to keep food in their mouth when eating/drinking? Is it difficult for he/she to imitate tasks (you watch your child thinking, but ultimately he/she struggles to execute!)? Consider trying:
- Straws – the more narrow the straw and thicker the drink, the more work it takes!
- Flavored chapstick – before working on speech activities, increase awareness of lips by placing flavored chapstick on the lips of your child. This is a fun way to provide tactile feedback and help increase awareness of the lips
- Bubbles – blowing bubbles requires muscle tension in the cheeks and coordination of breathing. Pair it with speech when possible, “Look at the bubble go up, up, up!”
- Practice making silly faces in the mirror – when you make a face (like fish lips or exaggerated chewing), model it slowly and exaggerate it
- Incorporate speech sounds into your play – practice producing speech sounds as these sounds lead to the production of words like the car goes “puh-puh-puh”
- Promote visual models – we know that seeing, hearing, and feeling sounds encourage imitation. Try laying down so that your face is within your child’s line of vision, make a silly noise before you model, let him/her touch your lips when saying the sound. Draw attention to your mouth, including your tongue.
Consider making an activities plan for your child
Each child with autism is unique in his/her developmental strengths/needs profile. Consider discussing a plan for your child at your next occupational therapy or speech therapy session for guidance as to which activities would be best most functional. Know that as your child’s preferences and sensory processing skills will grow and change, anticipate changes within the tasks that best suit them to change as well.
As a parent myself, activities that are incorporated into our pre-existing routine are the ones that stick. Think about how you can ease into these new exercises. Place a buzzy toothbrush beside the regular one for a quick choice option. Prep crunchy foods ahead of time, so there’s no fuss snacks ready. Create a routine of mirror play after bath. No doubt, you are remarkably busy, parents. Think about what makes sense for your crew, and keep supporting your resilient, incredible children.