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Adoption: Treating Sensory Processing Disorder

What kind of treatments or therapies are available to kids who suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder? We're fostering a boy from an abusive, high-risk background. After several consultations with an occupational therapist we've come to the conclusion that many of his most aggravating behavioral problems can be traced to sensory-based issues.

Before saying anything else, we want to offer you a word of encouragement. There is hope for every child who struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder. Here, as in almost every area of parenting children from difficult backgrounds, the bad news and the good news are the same: the human brain is plastic, and as a result it can always reorganize itself, whether to deal with danger and trauma or to adapt to a new environment of safety and trust.

You can begin to build that new foundation and counteract the effects of early sensory deprivation by working with an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration (OT/SI). Choose a therapist who makes a point of working with parent and child together.

Remember, too, that therapy sessions should only be a jumping-off point for the work you’ll be doing with your child at home. In between visits with the OT, partner with your child by helping him interpret and verbalize his sensory experiences in meaningful words. Build his self-esteem by telling him, “You are an extremely sensitive person – you experience the world in a way that most people can’t.” Become his advocate at school, at church, in the neighborhood, and wherever there are people who don’t understand sensory deprivation and Sensory Processing Disorder.

The treatment should be holistic in nature – in other words, it must take the whole child into account and proceed by way of a complete restructuring of his environment. A well-known axiom in the field of child development maintains that “recovery of function recapitulates development of function.” We can make up for the sensory deprivation a child suffered during his early years by starting over at the beginning and “re-doing” the entire developmental process. But this will take time: even under ideal circumstances, the human brain requires three years of mentoring to develop normal sensory processing. Parents of kids with SPD should expect to invest a comparable amount of time in the task of bringing their at-risk children back “online.” Healing comes from deep, intuitive insight into the child’s early experiences and a patient, painstaking reversal of their negative effects.

There is no “quick fix” for SPD, but by building a sensory-rich environment, engaging in playful interaction, and providing appropriate sensory activities for your child, you can actually begin to change his brain chemistry. Here are a few activities that you and your occupational therapist may want to include in the therapeutic process:

    1. Alerting activities for an under-responsive child, such as crunching food, taking a shower, bouncing a ball, crashing and bumping, or jumping on a trampoline.


    1. Calming activities for an over-stimulated child, such as sucking, rocking, swaying, cuddling, back-rubs, pushing against walls, or taking a bath.


    1. Organizing activities for children who have trouble regulating their responses to stimuli, such as chewing, hanging by their hands, pushing or pulling, or assuming an upside-down position.


    1. Activities to develop the tactile sense, such as water play, finger painting, sand play, and handling pets.


    1. Activities to develop the vestibular system, such as rolling, swinging, sliding, jogging, or balancing on a teeter-totter.


    1. Activities to develop the proprioceptive system, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads, pushing and pulling, bear hugs, and making a “people sandwich” (positioning your child between two pillows or mattresses and then applying pressure to the top of the “sandwich”).


    1. Activities to develop the visual sense, such as making shapes, jigsaw puzzles, building blocks, cutting activities, mazes, and dot-to-dot activities.


    1. Activities to develop motor skills, such as flour-sifting, stringing beads, and collecting and organizing shells, buttons, or bottle caps.


    1. Activities to develop motor planning, such as jumping from a table, walking like animals, or playground games like Simon Says and Ring-Around-the-Rosy.


  1. Activities to promote bilateral coordination, such as catching a ball, body rhythms, ribbon dancing, jumping, swimming, and riding a bike.


Additional thoughts from author and Sensory Processing Disorder expert Carol Kranowitz can be found at her website, The Out-of-Sync Child. If you need help locating an occupational therapist who emphasizes sensory integration, your family pediatrician may be able to recommend a suitable practitioner. If not, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for referrals to qualified individuals practicing in your area.

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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