Adopted: A Story

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My daughter joined us at 13 months, broken in spirit and disconnected. I sensed this in her referral pictures and felt it as soon as she arrived at the ministry’s office in China. I stepped forward to take her when her name was called. She did not cry; she smiled, the only smile that day. Her smile was unexpected and although it registered somewhere in the back of my mind, I ignored the warning of things to come.

She scooted up on my shoulder. Dark hair grew out of her shaved head, bug bites covered her pale face and the stink of polluted water permeated ratty orphanage clothing that had likely been shared by many babies. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and fell asleep.

Once home her adjustment seemed to go well. She enjoyed being with our other kids. She smiled and cooed, and yet something seemed off. She was content to be still — not normal toddler behavior. She could hear me but didn’t respond. She would fall and not react. I received blank looks when trying to engage her in “follow me” games. I had her assessed by developmental therapists, who said she was developmentally in the low-normal range.

Everything looked fine and it did not. Time passed and I asked for another assessment. The findings were that she was slightly delayed and would catch up soon. She was an extremely late walker and her gait was odd. We had her hips X-rayed. Normal again.

My niggling feeling grew into fear and then panic when it all began to escalate — the screams, the crying, throwing herself on the hardest surfaces imaginable, without any warning or triggers. I ached from watching her. I made phone calls while she slept against my heart and found another therapy group that could see us. 

The hour-long assessment turned into three and a half. Multiple therapists went over my daughter with a fine-toothed comb. She was given a diagnosis: sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Normal sensory integration involves the neurological processing of information received by a person’s body from her environment. SPD occurs when the brain cannot modulate the reciprocal processes of intake, organization and output flow of the sensory information that it receives. Children who have been institutionalized, like my daughter, are at a substantially higher risk for developing SPD.

My daughter exhibited difficulties with her tactile (touch), vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (positioning) senses. She responded to situations and her environment with a combination of over- and under-responsiveness. Her prognosis was good because she was healthy and very young. She would require intensive occupational, speech and physical therapy as soon as possible.

The improvements that occurred within a matter of weeks were miraculous. My daughter began talking and processing. Her tantrums decreased. Her gait became normal. I enrolled her in a developmental preschool program. She “graduated” within a year.

I realized that my daughter’s neurological system, severely stressed by being separated from her birth mother, had continued to shut down while she lived 
in the welfare institute with little stimulation and nurturing. The neglect she suffered intensified her SPD.

As my daughter healed she began to process and grieve openly for her losses — of her birth mother, of being given up, of not growing up in China. It took six long, patience-stretched-thin years for my daughter to fully emerge from the cocoon of SPD.

My daughter is now a teenager. She is tender, full of light and has an insatiable hunger to learn. She speaks Mandarin and enthusiastically explores her culture of origin. She calls on therapist-taught coping skills when she feels out-of-sync.

Our bond is sacred. My daughter knows there is nothing she can do to make me stop loving her. Knowing that gives her the permission to talk about adoption and loss, and to find resolution. 

Judy M. Miller is the author of What to Expect From Your Adopted Tween. 

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