While oral motor dysfunction is prevalent in children with autism and they may experience speech delay or feeding difficulties, many of them are able to overcome it through therapy or pick up alternative methods for communication.
87% of people with autism experience at least a form of motor difficulty, whether it is gross motor, fine motor or oral motor skills. Oral motor skills refer to the movement of muscles in the mouth, jaw, tongue, lips and cheeks. It also includes awareness, strength, coordination and endurance of those muscles.
Types of oral motor disorders
There are several different oral motor disorders which may affect either speech or eating. The two main oral motor disorders that affect speech are apraxia of speech and dysarthria. Children with apraxia of speech experience difficulty in coordinating oral movements necessary to turn sounds into syllables needed to form words whereas children with dysarthria have weak muscles for speech. Eating may also be affected for children with dysarthria as they would have difficulty feeding or swallowing.
Signs of oral motor dysfunction
The signs of oral motor dysfunction may differ from one child to another. Children with oral motor dysfunction may experience difficulty in swallowing or sucking, have a preference for soft food, have difficulty saying long or complex words, have excessive mouth movement during speech, and produce slurred or slow speech. It is best to consult a pediatrician to determine the cause and recommend a suitable treatment, which usually involves speech therapy.
Speech therapy goals are based on the individual’s needs and may involve constant practice of certain sounds and words until the individual is able to correctly pronounce them. A technique commonly used is co-production and it involves the individual with speech difficulty speaking at the same time as the speech therapist. Exercises may also be introduced to strengthen and improve the coordination of these muscles. Thus, speech therapy may help the child become more comfortable with speaking or eating.
Other than speech therapy sessions, one may try increasing the frequency of brushing teeth or replacing a traditional toothbrush with an electric toothbrush to allow oral exploration. This can also be done using a hand-held massager or with toys such as whistles and bubbles. As for feeding strategies, one may try to experiment with food of different textures to increase tactile input. For example, by adding sliced fruit to yogurt. Food can also be cut into different shapes to stimulate rotary chewing. For example, meats can be cut into small cubes while raw and crunchy vegetables can be cut into long strips.
While it is frustrating for caregivers who do not understand what the child wants, it is equally as frustrating for the child who is struggling to communicate. It is important to create a positive and fun experience with communication for the child so that he or she will be eager to practice. For a start, other modes of communication may be used while working on speech production to reduce frustration in children and encourage communication skills. Picture symbol boards, voice output communication aids or sign language may be used. In conclusion, patience and practice is key in helping children who are facing difficulties with verbal communication.
Written by Guat Shin.
Bliss, B. (1970, May 8). WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT ORAL MOTOR DYSFUNCTION. BLISS. Retrieved from https://blissspeech.com/what-you-should-know-about-oral-motor-dysfunction/
Geng, L. (2019, June 7). Oral motor dysfunction; exercises and therapy for autism and apraxia. Pursuit of Research. Retrieved from https://pursuitofresearch.org/2012/07/22/oral-motor-dysfunction-exercises-and-therapy-for-autism-and-apraxia/