Sensory Processing Disorder and Adoption!

Written by: Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Written by: Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

‘Sensory.’ The new ‘IT’ word. If you’re new to sensory, let me explain what exactly it means: “relating to sensation or the physical senses; transmitted or perceived by the senses.”

What does this mean to you if you’re reading this blog? You’re probably wondering if your child / future child will struggle with their sensory processing ability. Honestly, everyone struggles to process some sort of sensory input at some point in their life. Some more than others. And for some, it affects every daily task they participate in.

Who am I to tell you about sensory processing as it relates to you and your family? I’m Rachel… HI! I created The Sensory Project and co-host The Sensory Project Show Podcast!

I am a COTA/L, AC (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, Autism Certificate) and have practiced in an outpatient pediatric sensory integration setting for nearly 5 years. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many adoptive families and have seen first hand the relationships between adoption and sensory processing challenging. (Sensory Processing Disorder isn’t a true ‘diagnosis’ like Autism or Down Syndrome, so that’s why I’m referring to it as ‘sensory processing challenges’ however just keep in mind it’s all related!)

I love all things sensory and helping families like yours understand how sensory processing challenges impact your kiddos more than you know!

Sensory integration is a neurological process that allows a to child register and perceive sensory information through a variety of sensory channels. These include the visual, auditory, tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), proprioceptive (input to the muscles and joints), and vestibular (movement) system receptors.  Sensory processing is so important for every activity a child does! When a child has good sensory modulation, it means that the child’s nervous system is able to organize the sensory input that is received and use it meaningfully within their environment, to produce an appropriate adaptive response. Organized sensory input provides the child with information about their environment, in order for the child to respond purposefully and successfully to the demands within their environment. Does that make sense? Here’s an example: Someone scratches their nails on a chalkboard near you. Do you:

a) scream bloody murder and cry

b) shiver and get goosebumps

c) want to scream and cry, but take a deep breath and continue with you day

My answer is definitely c!

If you answered a, you are not processing sensory input with an appropriate adaptive response, if you answered b or c, you’re doing a little better. 😉

The reason I bring this up is because you have learned how to modulate sensory input throughout your day, communicate your frustrations, make an adaptation to the input and go about your day successfully.

These sweet kiddos can’t do that. At least not yet. Not without your help and guidance. Watch this video to understand the perspective of your child struggling with processing sensory input.

Ok, so let’s talk.

You’ve adopted your sweet kiddo(s) or you’re in the process of adopting, or your want to adopt in the future! Whatever your story is, you definitely want to be aware of these sensory red flags and participate in a variety of sensory based activities to reduce under or over-responsiveness to sensory input from a variety of environments. Every child is different, every story is unique, and this is my experience and research.

Here’s a little background information summarized from this research study:

  • longer lengths of institutionalization are associated with greater developmental delays and behavioral problems
  • underlying behavioral problems could be that institutionalized children are deprived of opportunities for sensory exploration and interaction with a variety of environments during early childhood
  • they may not be able to process and utilize sensory information to guide and regulate their behaviors effectively
  • children who spend extended periods in deprived environments, such as orphanages, will be at greater risk for problems with sensory integration.
  • institutionalized infants received only 18% as much holding, rocking, and tactile stimulation as infants living with families
  • occupational therapists are frequently involved in the assessment and treatment of postinstitutionalized children due to the children’s developmental delays and difficulties with daily occupational performance in school and home environments
  • improved knowledge of the relation between institutionalization and sensory integration may help occupational therapists and other professionals understand the behaviors of adopted postinstitutionalized children, and determine how best to facilitate children’s occupational performance
  • During the early years of development, the young human brain is sculpted by a variety of sensory and learning experiences. Therefore, children who spend extended time in institutions usually experience less environmental complexity and thus may be at greater risk for neurobehavioral dysfunction.

Woah. Is that crazy or what? First of all, give yourself a big hug because you are making such a positive impact on a child’s life for providing them with a happy home with lots of sensory integration opportunities (and so much else, of course!)

So what should you be looking for as it relates to sensory processing challenges in your sweet babe?

  • Limited eye contact / bonding / connection
    • Your child might seem like they don’t need you
    • They might not seek human touch
  • Self-stimulatory actions: toe walking, hand flapping, repetitive behaviors / repetitive use of toys, such as spinning everything or watching wheels turn intently.
  • Seeking input excessively
    • This can look different in so many kids
    • Seeking movement, deep pressure,  mouthing / chewing everything (beyond teething / infancy), making loud noises, tastes, smells, etc.
  • Avoiding input excessively
    • Again, this looks different for each unique case
    • Bothered by clothing textures, tags, and seams, overstimulated by noise, movement, or sights. Often kids will struggle with latching as an infant, they don’t tolerate certain food textures and are often labeled, ‘picky eaters.’
  • This information just scratches the surface, so you’ll want to learn more specifics from your child’s OT!

Now that you know there might be something ‘off’ with your child’s sensory system, what do you do?

  • Get a referral from your child’s pediatrician for an Occupational Therapy Evaluation
  • Advocate. Advocate. Advocate for your child. People will tell you that your child is fine. That you need to parent better. Or be more strict. Or limit screen time. Or do this or that. (I’m not kidding!) Listen to your gut. And advocate for them.

What can Occupational Therapy do for you?

  • Be sure to ask a lot of questions, take a tour of the facility and come prepared to the evaluation!
  • There is a lot of paperwork you’ll need to do, so if you have other kiddos, it might not be a bad idea to find a babysitter for them if possible.
  • While filling out the paperwork, make sure to assess your child based on their ‘worst day’! It’s so hard to fill out all of these assessments (emotionally & mentally), but just remember you’re here for your sweet babe and they need you.
  • Once your child receives their comprehensive OT evaluation, you’ll be able to assess your child’s level of severity and your OT will recommend a specific treatment plan for intervention.
  • OT isn’t a ‘quick fix’ for your child’s behavior and sensory integration. You will learn strategies, techniques, protocols, and will be provided with a home exercise program (or multiple!) to carry over into home, school, and community environments.
  • If you aren’t able to carry over, talk to your OT! Baby steps. One day at a time, but I promise if you do your best to implement what your OT recommends, there will be progress.
  • p.s . expect regression before progress! This is NORMAL!

Okay! I think that’s all I have for you today! Hopefully you’ve learned something special and aren’t feeling too stressed! You’ve got this.

Thanks for being here!


Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

The Sensory Project


Ultimate Play Sand


Play Sand- A Kinetic Sensory Activity

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Liquid Motion Bubbler- Sensory Play, Fidget Toy

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