Sensory Overload and ADHD: What to Know

Have you ever been annoyed by an itchy tab, or annoyed by someone chewing loudly? Maybe once you notice them, you can’t ignore these feelings. This gives you a small insight into the experience of someone with sensory overload, also known as sensory processing disorder.

If people are overwhelmed by their senses, including touch or hearing, sensory processing disorders can make it difficult for them to function properly. The condition is known to be closely associated with autism, but research has shown that sensory overload and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also go hand in hand.

This article will review why people with ADHD are prone to sensory overload, the triggers, and how to deal with it.

ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects approximately 11% of school-age children. ADHD may cause symptoms such as difficulty sitting still, difficulty concentrating, or impulsive behavior. An estimated two-thirds of children with ADHD will still experience symptoms as adults.

Studies have shown that children with ADHD have difficulty processing sensory stimuli from the outside world. Children with ADHD tend to overreact to such stimuli, such as bright lights, strong smells, loud sounds, or certain physical sensations, which can cause them to experience sensory overload.

Some symptoms of ADHD can make sensory overload worse and lead to disturbances in sensory processing.

  • Lack of self-regulation: People with ADHD often have difficulty regulating their emotions or reactions. Because of this, mildly irritating sensations in neurotypical people can lead to flare-ups in people with ADHD.
  • Transition problems: People with ADHD often have difficulty transitioning, which is also known as flexible thinking problems. This can cause people to focus on uncomfortable situations and have difficulty shifting their attention elsewhere.
  • Lack of awareness: People with ADHD can sometimes be distracted, disorganized, or rushed. This can lead to sensory overload when they experience a feeling they don’t like (like itchy fur) but can’t remedy quickly.
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symptoms of sensory overload

Some people with sensory processing disorders have an insufficient response to sensory stimuli, which may lead them to seek more intense forms of stimulation. But more commonly, especially in people with ADHD, the disorder causes a hypersensitivity to sensory information. This can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms include:

  • Picky eating habits, especially avoiding foods with unpleasant textures
  • Difficulty settling down after activity
  • Sensitivity to smell or sound
  • dislike certain fabrics, clothing, or shoes
  • discomfort with certain movements, such as swinging or taking an elevator

These symptoms may seem mild, but they can be severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. In severe cases, sensory overload can lead to nutritional deficiencies or absenteeism, so addressing symptoms is important.

Causes of hyperstimulation in people with ADHD

People with sensory processing disorders can be overwhelmed by any of the five senses that most people are familiar with: touch, taste, hearing, sight, or smell.They may also be difficult to handle or easily overwhelmed by other senses, including vestibule senses (head movements), proprioception (muscle and joint movements), and intercept (feelings inside the body, such as hunger, thirst, or feeling cold).

People with ADHD are more likely to be overwhelmed by sensory input from these areas than people without ADHD. Common triggers for hyperstimulation in people with ADHD include:

texture

The texture of certain foods, fabrics, or body washes can overwhelm people with ADHD. It’s one of the most common types of sensory overload for kids with ADHD, and girls may be especially at risk.

touch

The way certain clothes or shoes fit can be frustrating and overwhelming, especially for kids. Others may be overwhelmed by sheets or car seats.

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taste

Some people with ADHD are sensitive to certain tastes, although food aversions are more commonly caused by texture.

sound

Loud sounds like fire alarms, or even the subtle sound of someone chewing can cause stress.

smell

People with sensory processing disorders may be particularly sensitive to smells, even those that are pleasant, such as perfume or cooking food.

sight

Visual clutter can provide too much stimulation.

Treating and Managing Sensory Overload in ADHD

ADHD is treated with a combination of medication and behavioral interventions. Treatment of sensory overload can be integrated into this protocol.

The best treatment for sensory processing disorder is sensory integration therapy, which can be combined with physical or occupational therapy. Under this therapy, a person is exposed to sensory stimuli and learns how to respond appropriately.

If you want to address sensory processing and ADHD for yourself or your child, try these steps:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider. Sensory overload is common in children with ADHD, and your healthcare provider may have suggested strategies.
  • Identify triggers. Keep a journal to help identify triggers or things that overwhelm your child. When reasonable, avoid these.
  • Learn techniques for self-soothing. Help your child learn how to calm themselves down when they are overwhelmed. This can be difficult for people with ADHD, so you may need to work with an experienced therapist.
  • Follow the routine. Routines can help increase predictability and reduce ADHD symptoms such as confusion and transition difficulties, thereby providing more resources for dealing with ADHD.
  • Practice regulation. Find techniques that can help you or your child regulate responses and sensory input, such as exercise, meditation, or drawing.

generalize

Many people are aware of the link between sensory processing disorders and autism, but few know that sensory overload and ADHD often co-occur. Sensory processing isn’t just an ADHD quirk: it’s a real condition, rooted in brain differences. Talk to your healthcare provider and therapist about interventions that can help relieve sensory overload.

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VigorTip words

Sensory overload can make it difficult for people with ADHD to go about their daily lives. Feeling overload can also be frustrating, whether you’re the person experiencing it, or a parent or caregiver trying to help a child cope.

Remember, people with sensory overload and ADHD aren’t trying to be hard — they’re experiencing a very real symptom of their condition. Talk to your healthcare provider and try sensory integration therapy and other interventions to help you or your child better regulate and respond to sensory information.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does sensory overload in ADHD feel like?

    When people with ADHD experience sensory overload, they can become so preoccupied with one sense that they often cannot take their attention away from stimuli or focus on other tasks. This can lead to difficulty meeting expectations at school or at work.

  • What does ADHD overstimulation look like?

    People who experience sensory hyperstimulation due to ADHD may not be able to focus on anything other than their senses. They may be irritable, frustrated, or distracted by the unpleasant feeling. In some cases, people may pull on their shirts, plug their ears, or take other steps to stop the feeling.

  • Can sensory problems be symptoms of ADHD?

    Sensory problems and sensory processing disturbances are common in people with ADHD. While scientists are still working out the exact correlation, research suggests that children and adults with ADHD are more likely than neurotypical individuals to experience sensory overload.