Oral Sensitivity and How It Affects Articulation Development

by Valerie Johnston, MS, CCC-SLP

Sensation, or being aware of information we get from our senses, is an important force in the development of oral-motor and articulation abilities. When we think of sensation in relation to the development of speech we typically think of hearing, but tactile and proprioceptive sensations are equally important.

Tactile (touch) sensations occur when surface areas of the body are touched by oneself or another source. For example, in the mouth tactile sensations can be caused by food, fingers, toys, or the tongue as it moves to chew, swallow or produce speech sounds.

Whereas tactile sensations come from the surface of the area that is touched, proprioceptive sensations come from inside the muscle during deep, firm touch. Proprioceptive sensations tell you where your body is in space and where the parts are in relation to each other. It is oral proprioceptive feedback that enables you to know, among other things, where your tongue is, what shape it is in, and how tight or loose it is.

Each person's tolerance level for sensation is unique. These tolerance levels can be viewed as points along a continuum. The majority of these points fall within the normal range, but a few fall outside the normal range at either end of the continuum.

At one end of the continuum is hypersensitivity, or over-reaction to sensations. A child that is hypersensitive has a low sensory threshold and cannot cope with incoming sensory information. He perceives unimportant sensations as being important and often interprets them as unpleasant or even threatening. Consequently, he avoids sensations that are normally accepted by others. The orally hypersensitive child may have a sensitive gag reflex, avoid certain foods because of texture or temperature or have difficulty participating in activities such as toothbrushing or visiting the dentist. Orally hypersensitive children may also be hypersensitive in other areas of their bodies. They might be very selective about the kinds of clothes they wear, be oversensitive to the tags in their shirts or avoid touch to other parts of their bodies or want to be in control of it.

At the other end of the continuum is hyposensitivity. Whereas the hypersensitive child attaches to much importance to the incoming sensations, the hyposensitive child attaches too little importance to them. This child is under-reactive. He may show reduced or delayed reaction to touch, crave touch, have difficulty determining where he has been touched or be rough when touching others. Orally, this child may have a weak gag reflex, be unaware of crumbs around his mouth when eating, constantly have his fingers or toys in his mouth or drool.

It doesn't matter if the problem is hyper- or hyposensitivity; the sensory imbalance interferes with normal responses to oral sensations and inhibits normal oral-motor development, and therefore, acquisition of normal articulation abilities. The good news is that sensory imbalance can be normalized through progressive stimulation of the affected areas. This facilitates the development of more normal responses to oral stimulation, which in turn leads to improved articulation abilities.

If you have questions or need more information you can contact me at:

Overton Speech & Language Center, Inc.
Fort Worth, TX
(817) 294-8408


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Copyright (c) 1983, 2001 Overton Speech & Language Center, Inc.


Last revised: December 29, 2001