Sensory Processing Disorder and the Adopted Child: Not Just Bad Behavior?

Sensory Processing Disorder and the Adopted Child: Not Just Bad Behavior?
Engaging in sensory-seeking behavior

The following is a guest post by an adoptive mom whose young son has Sensory Processing Disorder:

By Melissa Flanagan

When my son A was two, he attended a Montessori preschool.  It was during this time that phrases like “overly active” and “difficulty sitting still” emerged in direct reference to him.  A’s preschool teacher consistently told me at pickup that he had “had a bad day” and he “didn’t listen well.” Boys are busy though, right?  It surely wasn’t something serious.

I just thought the teachers were overreacting to A’s active and playful nature.  But then they asked me to send him to school in shoes without laces to prevent him chewing on them -- and the teacher told me that his issues were “probably chemical” – which started my red flag on its ascent.

It certainly wasn’t the place of his preschool teacher to diagnose him with any sort of issue -- medical or otherwise--  and while I was concerned, I decided that maybe what A needed was a new environment.

So I went on a search for a new preschool—one that would appreciate his energy and offer him the intellectual stimulation he needed.  When I stumbled upon the lovely Spanish immersion preschool, which just happened to be conveniently located about a block from my work, I thought I had found the answer.  I assumed A just needed a place where he was not only loved, but also challenged.


Things immediately became difficult for A at the new school.  While he certainly had good days, the tough ones quickly became more and more frequent.  A’s new teachers complained about his inability to sit for any length of time and his out-of-context-aggressive behavior.

I was puzzled—stunned, really.  Why was my sweet loving little boy randomly biting other children (at age 3½ when biting should no longer really be an issue)?  Why would my friendly son kick a child for no reason ,and even worse, why would he slap his teacher across the face?!  I was terribly worried—so worried, in fact, that we paid a visit to the pediatrician.  She was reluctant to say much, but she did refer us to a wonderful play therapist.

Let me just say that every single day, I thank the universe for that referral.  A’s play therapist was wonderful and not only helped us get to the bottom of an issue with a teacher who was bullying him), but she is also the one who suggested we see an occupational therapist, because as a former elementary school teacher, she was familiar with something called sensory processing disorder (SPD) and thought that A’s behavior fit the profile.

Sensory huh? “Technically,” she told me, “sensory processing disorder is a failure of one or more of the internal senses.”  She handed me a checklist and asked me to fill it out.  I did and, boy, were my eyes opened.

Fit the profile?  Oh yeah, A fit the profile.  Going through the “SPD” checklist, I somehow felt like I was no longer alone or crazy in my concern for my son.  I realized that A was not the only child in the world who would spend thirty minutes straight spinning in circles or trying to stand on his head while simultaneously screaming at the top of his lungs and later refusing to eat anything that doesn’t crunch.

I know what you’re thinking, that could be any three-year-old, right?  At the surface it may seem so, but join it with crippling irrational fears, the never-ending desire to roll around in laundry and burrito himself into rugs, blinding rage-filled meltdowns, constantly chewing on shirt sleeves and collars, until they are literally shredded, and the frequent chewing of fingernails until they nearly bleed, and you have what is called a sensory-seeker.

Sitting through the evaluation at the occupational therapist (OT) was incredible and eye-opening.  Apparently my son sits in a W shape and is nearly ambidextrous (when coupled, these are two telltale signs of SPD).  And that whole spinning thing that he does more than any human being should be able to do? Well, that is because his brain literally doesn’t register the spinning the way yours and mine does so he doesn’t get the nystagmus reaction (medical term for our eyes jumping that causes dizziness) that neurotypical people experience.  Hearing these things was such a relief.  It was like, suddenly, the pieces of a puzzle were put together.

Fast forward a few months.   A sees his OT weekly, and he follows what is called a sensory diet.  This is basically a plan that provides him the sensory input he needs during the day so he can focus, feel in control, and be successful.

Unfortunately, his Spanish Immersion preschool wasn’t interested in helping with this beyond some very basic things, so A had to move preschools again, but the good news is that his new school is loving, open, and willing to do whatever it takes to help him.

What that looks like varies from day to day.  Some days, he needs to have a straw in his mouth the whole day and playdough in his hands to keep them busy.  Other days, he wears his weighted vest during circle time so he can sit and focus.  On hard days, he might do all of these and take breaks outside the classroom to help him avoid getting overwhelmed and having a meltdown.  Each day is different, but each day is getting better.  Getting better, yes, that is the beauty.

The key to all of this is education.  Even though I have worked in education for nearly 13 years, I had never heard of sensory processing disorder until A was diagnosed; and frankly, I still have a lot to learn.  As A’s mother, it is my job to advocate for him and part of that is to help educate others. And that’s just what I am doing here.

What causes SPD? There is no definite answer, and while it is clear there is a genetic component to SPD, it turns out that children who are adopted have significantly higher rate of being diagnosed with it -- a fact that jumped out at me is particularly interesting, given that A is adopted.  Both sensory deprivation at a very early age and trauma in utero (often the introduction of drugs and alcohol) are linked to SPD, and these are conditions that many children who are adopted—especially from foster care—experience.

What actually happens in the brain and causes the problem is a bit of a mystery, but in A’s case, the use of drugs and alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy are likely contributors.   And, more and more, adoptive parents with children who share similar pre-and-post birth histories as my son are finding their children are being diagnosed with SPD.

So, fellow adoptive parents, the long and the short of it is, if you are seeing strange behaviors that aren’t being resolved with discipline and are different than that of your child’s peers—the behaviors that make you go “hmmmmmm,” it may be time to see an occupational therapist.  Because, in reality, it may not just be bad behavior.

Melissa Flanagan is a teacher, writer and photographer living with her husband and son in the Dallas area.  When she grows up, she wants to be like her awesome 4-yr-old son, A.  If you would like to submit a guest post to Portrait of an Adoption, please email it to

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