Living the Life of Foster Care and Adoption

Is it Sensory Processing Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder? What’s the difference?

Is it Sensory Processing Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder? What’s the difference?

How do you tell the difference between Sensory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

I can remember being appalled that the daycare where my adopted, 1-year-old son and 3-year-old foster son attended was allowing a 4-year-old bully to keep attending school. Every day when I would pick up N, my 3-year-old, he would tell stories about how this child punched him or kicked him and wouldn’t leave him alone. When I talked to the teacher I found out that this child was doing the same thing to a number of kids and causing a lot of disruption. I asked if they were going to remove this child and was told that they were discussing his problems with his parents. Eventually, I moved my kids to a different school and N was much happier. What I couldn’t understand, though, was why it was so hard for the school to expel the troubled 4-year-old?

Flash ahead a year and a half later, my 1-year-old adopted son, who was now two, still attended the new daycare but he was growing up. And as he grew, he started to become aggressive with the other kids. What started as a few general comments by his teachers about his behavior, turned into a slew of incident reports about his aggression.

“E ran up to another child and pushed her for no reason,” one report stated.

“E shook the bookshelf so hard all the books that were stacked on top fell off onto the children sitting on the other side of the shelf,” said another.

“E went over to a child who was sitting on the sofa watching a movie and just kicked him for no reason.” The reports seemed endless. And this time, the miniature bully in the school was my son! I was in danger of having him kicked out of daycare.

If you have read my previous posts, Help! My 2-year-old was kicked out of daycare, part 1, part 2 and part 3, you know the final result. After having engaged a therapist and having a series of tests performed to try to figure what was wrong that was causing him to act so aggressively we still had no answers and he was eventually asked to leave. The same thing happened at another daycare where he was enrolled.

After talking with my post-adoption specialists and consulting caseworkers and other mental health professionals who deal with children adopted through foster care, it turned out that my son had a Sensory Processing Disorder. Something happened either when he was still developing in the womb or possibly when he lived in other foster homes, that stunted the full development of his sensory system and, thus, he struggles with integrating different senses such as touch, taste, and proprioception. Things we take for granted every day that help us make sense of the world around us and our place in it.

My very big 2.5-year-old at the vets with our sick dog

For instance, when he is dropped off at a crowded busy school with bright lights and kids and teachers running around yelling and playing, his senses go into overload and he has a meltdown. All of the stimulus and commotion triggers his fight or flight system and he plunges ahead full force in an effort to make himself feel safe. He just does not know how to process what is going on around him. And he’s a BIG BOY for just being 2 years old! Thus, given his size, he is strong enough to hurt other people.

Doesn’t that sound like ADHD?

People have been known to ask this question, including a psychiatrist who observed him in an isolated room with no toys for 45 minutes. “Look at him,” she declared as he was climbing on furniture. “He can’t sit still.”

What I wanted to ask her in a not-so-nice tone was, “What toddler can sit still for 45 minutes in a room with two adults and nothing to do?”

However, for the sake of argument, I explored the symptoms of ADHD and this is what I discovered.

The following are charts documenting common symptoms of both Sensory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

If you look at the two charts there do seem to be some overlapping of symptoms, and I’ve come to find that often a child can have both ADHD and SPD. However, when a child is dealing specifically with Sensory Integration issues, his or her symptoms do not go away with the administration of medication.

Usually, a parent and/or teacher have been observing several symptoms that correlate with the ADHD chart, and so the child is brought to the pediatrician. The pediatrician then refers the child to a clinician for an evaluation. They will analyze many aspects of the child’s daily life such as learning, memory, cognitive functioning, executive functioning, reasoning, social functioning, and verbal and nonverbal communication.

After this clinical interview, plus a thorough review of the child’s and family’s medical history, they may also undergo neuropsychological testing before being formally diagnosed.

Upon formal diagnosis of ADHD, the procedure for helping the child generally is a combination of stimulant medication and behavior therapy. The medication helps to regulate the brain while the behavior therapy addresses specific problem behaviors through a lot of structure, praise and rewards for positive behavior and defining clear expectations that the child understands and is encouraged to adhere to.

For the child exhibiting the symptoms from the SPD chart the process is much different. It usually involves engaging an occupational therapist as well as a behavior therapist in order to help the child make sense of the world around him and learn to function appropriately in it. This is the category in which my son falls into.

I’ve come across a book that was written by both a mother who noticed particular struggles that her son was having and the occupational therapist who treated him. Biel, L. M.A., OTR/L & Peske, N. (2018). Raising A Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues (3rd edition). New York, NY: Penguin Books.

In the following excerpt, Lindsey had been observing a lot of children who seemed to be suffering and she wanted to learn why because there was nothing recognizably wrong with them.

“Despite their obvious intelligence, these kids were unable to concentrate in class, were prone to emotional outbursts, or were painfully withdrawn and usually solitary on the playground. They couldn’t write legibly; misplaced their homework; and were physically clumsy, self-conscious, and usually sad and dispirited. All were labeled as having ‘behavior problems,’ and each child contained a mystery that would take patience, love, and hours of detective work to figure out.”

Biel, L. M.A., OTR/L & Peske, N. (2018). Introduction: Lindsey’s Story. In Raising A Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues (p. 5). New York, NY: Penguin Books

She goes on to note that after speaking to various teachers and parents as well as these kids she noticed that they were having trouble integrating sensory information.

“Without a well-functioning sensory system, these kids felt uncomfortable and unsafe in their bodies and in the world. They lacked the essential foundation of sensory well-being needed to learn, play, socialize, and live up to their full potential. I learned to take a two-prong approach: making changes in the physical environment to meet the unique needs of the child, and boosting the child’s own ability to tolerate and integrate sensory stimuli coming from outside and inside their body.

Biel, L. M.A., OTR/L & Peske, N. (2018). Introduction: Lindsey’s Story. In Raising A Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues (p. 5). New York, NY: Penguin Books

So, what Lindsey was doing with the children she worked with, my 2.5-year-old son is doing twice a week in occupational therapy.

A little boy doing an obstacle course in occupational therapy for a sensory processing disorder
E doing an obstacle course/heavy work in OT for SPD

After careful evaluation by myself, counselors, and occupational therapists I’m convinced that my child does not suffer from ADHD but has sensory integration issues.

The process can be long and involved but as I learn more about what stimulates and encourages my son and what causes him to withdraw and have a meltdown I can better prepare for his future in the school system, his social network, and life.

*If you are in the process of either having your child diagnosed with SPD or have been actively working on sensory integration through various methods I would love to hear about your process in the comment section below. And please like us and share on your social media accounts.

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