The Vestibular System and Auditory-Language Processing

By Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.

As they research their child’s disability, many parents learn about sensory integration and the importance of the body’s vestibular system, perhaps the most basic of all the sensory systems. Initially they learn that the vestibular system coordinates body movements, maintains balance and equilibrium, and helps children develop normal muscle tone. It is not as immediately apparent, though, how the vestibular system influences auditory-language processing. However, the vestibular system plays a significant role in the development of language, so that children with vestibular dysfunction may also have auditory-language processing problems.

It’s important to realize that the vestibular and auditory systems work together as they process sensations of movement and sound. These sensations are closely intertwined, because they both begin to be processed in the receptors of the ear.

Audition, or hearing, is the ability to receive sounds. We are born wit this basic skill. We can’t learn how to do it; either we hear, or we don’t. The ability to hear does not guarantee, however, that we understand sounds. We are not born with the skill of comprehension, we acquire it, as we integrate vestibular sensation. Gradually, as we interact purposefully with our environment, we learn to interpret what we hear and to develop sophisticated auditory processing skills. Some processing skills include the following:

auditory discrimination - differentiating among sounds

auditory figure/ground disturbance - discriminating between sound in the foreground and background

language - the meaningful use of words, symbols representing objects and ideas

Language is a code for deciphering what words imply and how we use them to communicate. Language that we take in, by listening and reading, is called "receptive." Language that we put out, by speaking or writing is "expressive." Language and speech are closely related, but they are not the same. Speech is the physical production of sound. Speech skills depend on smoothly functioning muscles in the throat tongue, lips, and jaw. The vestibular system influences motor control and motor planning that are necessary to use those fine muscles to produce intelligible speech.

Because the vestibular system is crucial for effective auditory processing, the child with vestibular dysfunction frequently develops problems with language. How do these problems play out? Here are some common characteristics of children with poor auditory-language processing:

Moving activates the ability to speak. A child with vestibular and language problems benefits greatly from therapy that simultaneously addresses both types of dysfunction. Speech and language therapists report that just putting the child in a swing during treatment can have remarkable results. Occupational therapists have found that when they treat a child for vestibular dysfunction, speech-and-language skills can improve along with balance, movement, and motor planning skills. And even without the assistance of therapists, children who move spontaneously often show enhanced ability to verbalize their thoughts.

For more information on sensory integration, vestibular dysfunction, and auditory processing, check out the DDR Sensory Integration links.

[This article was excerpted from The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Revised EditionThe Out-of-Sync Child: Understanding and Coping With Sensory Integration Dysfunction and initially published in New Developments: Volume 2, Number 3 - Winter, 1996-1997]

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