Parents continue to be told that non-speech exercises, like blowing a feather, smacking the lips together, holding up a cheerio with the tongue, etc., will lead to improvements in speech production because the child’s articulators are “weak” or “uncoordinated.”
Let’s unpack this for a minute. First of all, if you want speech, you practice speech. If you wanted to be a basketball player, you wouldn’t practice moving your hands in the motion of dribbling without using an actual ball and think it would improve your skills. You’d just be waving your hand back and forth at the ground.
Secondly, the amount of strength and flexibility required for articulation is really, really low. We call it the “50% Rule” — that is, if 50% of a structure is intact, you should be able to produce the sound. This is why people who have had partial glossectomies (tongue removal, usually due to cancer), or lost a few teeth, or are elderly and very weak, are still able to speak. You’re not lifting weights with your tongue.
Thirdly, even if great strength were required for speech (and it’s not), you gain strength by working against resistance until the point of failure (basic Workout 101 skill here). Puffing your cheeks and licking your lips isn’t doing this.
So why do NSOMEs persist and why are parents constantly being suggested that they might just be the cure for what ails their children? Sadly, it’s all about supply and demand. Companies and ill-informed (and/or unethical) professionals continue to make money hand over fist providing these services because parents who don’t know any better are desperate for anything to help their children. Parents who have already been through NSOME therapy may well believe that it has helped their children, but this is an anecdote about one child, not evidence.
Given the current literature on the subject, it’s hard if not impossible to justify the use of NSOMEs, but it’s also hard if not impossible for us as humans to admit our mistakes. Parents, upon finding out that they’ve been taken for a ride, feel justifiably hurt and defensive — they were just trying to do their best for their child! Professionals, whether they used these exercises purposefully or inadvertently due to lack of knowledge, need to have the integrity to acknowledge their mistake, learn more, and change their ways. But we’re human, it doesn’t always happen.
It’s a lot easier to continue practicing the way you have for the past twenty years (and call your anecdotes of success “evidence” to justify it), than to face the evidence the harsh light of day. Non-Speech Oral Motor Exercises to improve speech production are just not supported by evidence, and it’s frustrating to see how they continue to persist and be promoted, even at the highest levels of our profession.