Can you help us understand why our five-year-old son, who was adopted out of a background of trauma and abuse, sometimes goes "out of control" for no apparent reason? Though we've done everything in our power to make him feel loved and secure, he has developed a number of serious behavioral problems. We've begun treating him for ADHD, but so far it doesn't seem to have helped. Can you suggest anything?
It's possible that your boy is suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD can be defined as a practical inability to use information received through the senses so as to function smoothly and normally in everyday life. It has a physiological as well as a psychological basis, and is often caused by early childhood trauma. Though common among kids who come from "hard places," SPD is frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed – as a matter of fact, it can easily be mistaken for ADHD.
Sensation – touch, taste, sight, hearing, balance – and the discerning and skillful interpretation and use of sensation are not the same thing. We are born with the one; the other is honed and shaped as a child moves through the natural stages of growth and development. Babies fine-tune their perception of sensory information primarily within the context of nurturing experiences with a loving caregiver. As a nursing child snuggles close to her mother's breast, looks up into her mother's eyes, and sees her own expression mirrored in her mother's face, her brain begins to form healthy neural and chemical connections that enable her to grasp the meaning of these sensory interactions with her environment. Early trauma of any kind can interrupt this natural developmental flow, causing sensory deficits which often surface later in the form of behavioral and learning difficulties.
SPD is not a single specific disorder. Instead, it's an umbrella term that covers a variety of neurological disabilities, including the following sub-types:
Sensory Modulation Disorder
- Sensory over-responsivity: the child is subject to sensory overload; simple sensations of sight, sound, and touch overwhelm and terrify him.
- Sensory under-responsivity: the child is lethargic and seems unmoved by sensory stimulation.
- Sensory seeking: the child craves more and more sensations of various kinds (spinning, hanging upside down, jumping, etc.).
Sensory Discrimination Disorder
- The child has difficulty differentiating between stimuli, misgauges the importance of sensory messages, and thus has problems with body awareness and the interpretation of visual-spatial relations.
Sensory-Based Motor Disorder
- Postural problems
- Dyspraxia: the child displays an inability to plan and carry out simple tasks.
Children with SPD may experience difficulties with any or all of the following: touch, or the tactile sense; the vestibular sense, or balance and motion awareness; proprioception, or deep touch ("position" or "muscle sense"); the visual sense; and the auditory sense. In turn, these difficulties can sometimes trigger the kind of "out of control" behavior you described in your question.
If you're unsure whether your son's behavior can be explained in terms of SPD and its symptoms, feel free to call and discuss the details of your situation with a member of Focus on the Family's Counseling department. You may also be able to find the resources you need by visiting the website of TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development.
Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)
TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development
Preparing for Adoption