Adoption: Identifying the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

How can I know if my child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)? I'm an adoptive parent of a high-risk child. I'm beginning to think that some aspects of her behavior might be explained by SPD. In particular, it seems that some of her otherwise unexplainable outbursts and meltdowns might be triggered by sensory overload. How can I know for sure?

SPD often goes undetected for the simple reason that its symptoms mimic those of several other childhood disorders such as ADHD, learning disabilities, speech and language problems, poor auditory or visual discrimination, allergies, nutritional deficiencies, and emotional imbalances. For this reason, it’s imperative that parents become skillful detectives and learn to discern the signs of SPD through careful observation. Here are some practical strategies to keep in mind:

    1. Know the risk factors. First, familiarize yourself with your child’s history. If you have a handle on his past, you’ll be in a much better position to determine whether his problems are rooted in sensory issues. There are six major risk factors to be aware of:
      1. Stressful pregnancy
      2. Difficult birth
      3. Early hospitalization
      4. Abuse
      5. Neglect
      6. Trauma


    1. Look for tell-tale signs. When parenting a child from a “hard place,” it’s important to realize that “misbehavior” often conceals a subtle cry for help. It’s possible that many of the aggravating things your child does can be best understood as survival tactics. Kids with SPD – especially those who suffer from sensory overload – often manifest a fight, flight, fright, or freeze reaction to sensory input. Spend some intentional time watching your child to see whether her behavior might fit into any of these categories. Does she avoid interaction with other children or display an aversion to transitions? Does she overreact to loud noises or bright lights? Be aware of the “sensory triggers” that seem to “set her off” or lead to “meltdowns.”


  1. Document your observations. It can be helpful to keep a journal in which you jot down your findings and record the specifics of your child’s behavior at different periods of the day – for example, in the early morning, before and after meals, at school and at home – and on different days of the week. Watch for patterns that have a potential connection with sensory issues. Carol Kranowitz’s book, The Out-of-Sync Child, provides several detailed checklists that can help you recognize the marks of the various sub-categories of sensory dysfunction. Here are a few specific examples:
    • Sensory Modulation Problems: The child reacts with fight or flight to unexpected touch, intense light, getting dirty, or certain textures of food or clothing (over-responsive ); the child is unaware of messy face, hands, or clothes (under-responsive); the child wallows in mud or chews on inedible substances (sensory-seeking).


    • Sensory Discrimination Problems: The child cannot tell where on his body he has been touched; cannot feel himself falling, especially when his eyes are closed; appears clumsy and seems unable to gauge the appropriate amount of force needed to handle pencils or toys; cannot tell the difference between distinct smells such as lemons, vinegar, and soap.


  • Sensory-Based Motor Problems: The child is either tense or has “loose and floppy” muscle tone; loses balance easily or “trips on air;” has difficulty using both sides of the body when jumping, clapping, swinging, or pouring water into a cup; has difficulty with manual tasks such as drawing, writing, buttoning, doing jigsaw puzzles, or using eating utensils; shows signs of low self-esteem.
  1. Consult with a specialist who deals with children from high-risk backgrounds. If the data you’ve collected leads you to believe that your at-risk child may be struggling with sensory processing difficulties, seek out the assistance of a professional who is trained to diagnose problems of this nature. This consultation may take the form of either 1) a short, informal screening, during which the examiner looks for developmental deficiencies and checks to see whether your child has acquired certain specific skills, or 2) a full evaluation conducted by an occupational therapist, developmental optometrist, audiologist, speech/language pathologist, pediatrician, psychologist, special education specialist, and/or social worker.


If you’d like to discuss the details of your situation at greater length, or if you need referrals to child development specialists practicing in your area, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation.

And for more information about parenting adopted children, you might consider a therapeutic parenting model developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis called TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention). We recommend you visit the webpage of TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, which has a free one-hour “Introduction to TBRI” online video designed to help parents understand their child’s brain development. You can find other resources through their online store.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

The Adoption Journey (includes lists of books, broadcasts, articles and referrals)

The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family

Empowered to Connect: Created to Connect Study Guide

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping With Sensory Processing Disorder

Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)


TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

Empowered to Connect

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption Program: Wait No More®

The Out of Sync Child


Sensory Processing

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