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What is sensory deprivation, and how can parents help a child overcome it?

Our Adoption Medicine Clinic shares tips for parents of adopted children who may be struggling with delays caused by early sensory deprivation.
Sensory deprivation-related issues are often misinterpreted as behavioral problems or as a child "acting out." However, the child may actually have trouble understanding sensory information and or difficulty mastering important life skills.

If your child lived in an institution, experienced foster care or other early adversity, he or she may have missed many opportunities for typical development.

For example, your child may not have been spoke to, held, or rocked. He or she may not have had as many opportunities to feel different textures, see different sights, hear different sounds or taste a variety of foods.

These opportunities and activities provide sensory information to the brain, which interprets and organizes that data. If the brain has received little sensory input a child may be over-or under-sensitive to new experiences. This lack of opportunity is known as sensory deprivation. Children who experience sensory deprivation—or do not receive consistent care or support from an adult—may experience developmental or cognitive delays, including:

  • Motor skills and coordination, such as running, jumping, catching, dressing, or bathing
  • Spatial concept learning, which may affect a child’s ability to do things like building with blocks or assembling a puzzle
  • Listening and following directions in a loud or busy setting
  • Speech and academics
  • Emotional or behavioral development, which may include sitting still, understanding personal boundaries or other areas
  • Problem solving
  • Social skills

These challenges are often misinterpreted as behavioral problems or as the child “acting out.” However, your child may actually have trouble understanding sensory information and or difficulty mastering important life skills. Once placed in a loving, stable, supportive family, many children thrive and catch up over time.

To support a child with sensory deprivation, our Adoption Medicine Clinic experts recommend the following:

Learn more about our Adoption Medicine Clinic team and services.

You can also offer everyday activities to help your child, including:

  • Large motor skill activities
    Large motor activities help build strength, coordination, endurance and balance. Some activities such as martial arts and yoga require children to memorize a sequence of steps. These activities may also help support the brain in developing executive function skills. Executive function is an important life skill for learning self-control, flexible thinking and working memory. Take your child for a walk, go swimming, ride bikes together, use playground equipment or kick balls. Practice tumbling, jumping rope, hopping, or even crawling through tunnels. Try walking heel-toe on a balance beam or on a straight line. Create an obstacle course.

  • Fine motor skill activities
    When we execute smaller movements using our wrists, hands, fingers or toes, we’re using fine motor skills. To improve your child’s fine motor skills, encourage your child to practice a pincer grasp between the his or her fingers and thumb. This strengthens the small muscles in hands and fingers, supports visual discrimination and memory, hand-eye coordination and other skills. Other fine motor activities may include arts and crafts projects that involve painting, coloring, scissors use, clay sculpting or weaving. Household chores also offer an opportunity for children to practice fine motor skills. Consider having them open or close jars, fold napkins or laundry, spread butter on bread, water plants or complete other similar activities. Activities like “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” playing with finger puppets, dressing dolls, using wind-up toys, or writing/drawing with sidewalk chalk can also help.

  • Spatial concepts and problem solving
    Spatial concepts and problem solving build a foundation for math skills; encourage imagination, creativity and hypothesis testing; and support visual discrimination and memory. Activities can include: talking about spatial concepts (over, under, through, etc.); playing with a variety of building blocks and toys; stacking cups and toys; completing Tangram puzzles, spatial puzzles or jigsaw puzzles; creating and using maps. If blocks and puzzles are difficult for your child, consider providing items designed for a slightly younger child. This will allow your child the opportunity to develop mastery before increasing the challenge.

  • Speech, emotional development and social skills
    Social interactions with your child are important for developing these skills. Socialization fulfills your child’s need to connect so that he or she can build a healthy attachment relationship to a  parent or caregiver. It also helps develop self-confidence. Finally, socialization helps build the language and social skills they need in order to develop friendships with peers. To foster these skills, spend 30 minutes a day reading with your child, or as much time as you have. Take turns making up and telling stories. Be creative and incorporate relevant issues—including challenges or successes going on within your family. Eat meals together and talk about your day. Have your child help you around the house with meal preparation or other household tasks that are developmentally appropriate—but be sure you do this together. Identify how things make you feel and appropriate ways for coping with big feelings, such as exercising to blow off steam, or snuggling and extra hugs for comfort. Listen to music together. Sing regardless of ability. Find songs that include movement instructions. Play games that require listening and following directions, including “Simon Says.”
If your child still struggles to integrate and understand new information or master age appropriate skills, consider contacting the University of Minnesota Health Adoption Medicine Clinic for a comprehensive assessment as early as possible.