Sensory Processing and the Adopted Child

sensory processing Imagine that you’re about to bite into a big red crunchy apple. You are holding the fruit in your hand and bring it to your mouth. You open your mouth wide and bite down hard, but when you bite down you realize that you were actually taking a bite of a soft warm roll. This is an unwelcome surprise! It’s not that you don’t like bread, but the experience is nothing like what you expected. Your teeth might clank together because you thought you needed to bite down hard and the taste and texture might be startling. Instead of the crunchy, sweet, cold sensations you would have experienced with the apple, you have a displeasing soft warm doughy texture in your mouth.


What went wrong here? Well, you received what could be considered sensory-miscues. Based on past experiences, you interpreted the sensory input to mean that the food you were about to eat was an apple (the food looked like an apple, felt like an apple, smelled like an apple, etc.), not a soft doughy roll. Your behavior, bodily movements and thought process were different because you thought that you were about to eat an apple and not a roll. For many children who have experienced difficult pasts, their brains may similarly miscue or misinterpret sensory input. These deficiencies in sensory processing can greatly impact how children experience and react to their world. These reactions and behaviors can present to well-meaning parents as misbehavior to be corrected, instead of meeting the needs of the sensory processing dysfunction.

As we all know, there are five primary senses: (1) sight; (2) smell; (3) hearing; (4) touch; and (5) taste. These are sometimes referred to as “external senses.” These five senses greatly impact how we interact with the world. Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®) also teaches parents and professionals about three additional senses, referred to as “internal senses.” External senses impact how we interact with the world (i.e.. we see, touch, and smell the apple) and our internal senses impacts our understanding of these interactions (i.e.. based on past experiences we know the apple is crunchy so we need to bite down harder).

The three internal senses are called the vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile. These senses interpret the sensory cues we receive, helping our brain to create meaning from the sensory input. The vestibular sense tells the body where it is in space and in relation to the earth and helps the body balance. The proprioceptive sense shapes a child understanding of firm touch and touch with gentle pressure. This type of touch is calming and organizing for the brain. For children who did not have these touch experiences as a young child, the child’s ability to calm him or herself may be diminished resulting in the child acting out. The third internal sense is the tactile sense; this sense like the proprioceptive sense is also related to touch. The tactile sense is how we experience soft nurturing touch, which helps the child develop attachments.

For many children adopted internationally, the development of one or more of the senses may be delayed or have a higher risk of having a delay. These delays may be considered Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which can result in confusion for the child in how they experience their world through their senses. No child is the same; all children will have differences in their sensory deficiencies and sensory preferences. For a child with a tactile sensitivity, tags in their clothing or the seams in their socks may be unbearable. Parents may need to cut the tags from the child’s clothing or purchase seamless socks. For a child with hypersensitivity to sound, parents may pack ear plugs for the child to carry in their pocket so that they have control over the noise.

While some children are sensory avoidant as indicated above, others may be sensory seeking. Some children seeking sensory stimulus though taste, may put hot sauce on everything or only like very hot or very cold foods. Some children with proprioception deficits may rock themselves back and forth to self- soothe because they missed this rocking when they were infants and have confusion on where they are in space. This child’s parents may need to help the child with strategies to alleviate the confusion, like having the child use their hands to push against a wall to receive proprioceptive stimulus he needs. It is important for parents to know that what on the surface may look like the child is misbehaving may just be that the child has an unmet sensory need. Learning what your child needs and providing your child with a sensory rich environment will be central to helping your child develop and have positive sensory experiences as they interact with their world.

Photo Credit: Nicki Dugan

For more information about MLJ Adoptions’ international adoption programs, please contact us.

Nicole Skellenger works as MLJ Adoptions’ Chief Executive Officer and Adoption Attorney. Nicole has spent time in orphanages with children who have nothing and are desperate for affection and has committed herself to using her skills to create better futures for these deserving children.