Have you ever been irritated by an itchy tag, or annoyed by someone chewing loudly? Maybe you've been unable to ignore these feelings once you notice them. That gives you a small glimpse into the experience of people with sensory overload, also called a sensory processing disorder.
Sensory processing disorder can make it difficult for people to function if they become overwhelmed by senses including touch or hearing. The condition is known to be closely related to autism, but research shows that sensory overload and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also go hand in hand.
This article will review the reasons why people with ADHD are prone to sensory overload, triggers, and how to cope.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects about 11% of school-aged kids. ADHD can cause symptoms such as trouble sitting still, difficulty paying attention, or impulsive behavior. An estimated two-thirds of kids with ADHD continue to experience symptoms as adults.
Research has shown that children with ADHD have trouble processing sensory stimulation from the outside world. Kids with ADHD tend to be over-responsive to such stimulation, such as bright lights, strong smells, loud sounds, or certain physical sensations, which can cause them to experience sensory overload.
A few of the symptoms of ADHD can make sensory overload worse, and result in a sensory processing disorder.
Some people with sensory processing disorder underreact to sense stimuli, which can cause them to seek out more intense forms of stimulation. But more commonly, particularly in people with ADHD, this disorder causes hyper-sensitivity to sensory information. This can present differently among individuals, but some common symptoms include:
These symptoms might seem minor, but they can be severe enough to interfere with a person’s day-to-day functioning. In severe cases, sensory overload can lead to nutritional deficiencies or missing school, so it’s important to address the symptoms.
People with sensory processing disorder can be overwhelmed by any of the five senses that most people are familiar with: touch, taste, sound, sight, or smell. They can also have trouble processing or be easily overwhelmed by other senses, including vestibular senses (head movements), proprioception (muscle and joint movement), and interception (internal bodily sensations such as hunger, thirst, or feeling cold).
People with ADHD are more likely to be overwhelmed by sensory input from any of these areas than people without ADHD. Common triggers of overstimulation in people with ADHD include:
The texture of certain foods, fabrics or body washes can overwhelm people with ADHD. This is one of the most common sensory overloads for kids with ADHD, and girls may be particularly at risk.
The way that certain clothes or shoes fit can be frustrating and overwhelming, particularly for kids. Others might experience overwhelm from bed sheets or car seats.
Some people with ADHD are sensitive to certain tastes, although food aversions are more commonly cause by textures.
Loud noises like a fire alarm or even subtle noises like someone chewing can cause stress.
People with a sensory processing disorder might be especially sensitive to smells, even those that are meant to be pleasant, like perfume or cooking food.
Visual clutter can provide too much stimulation.
ADHD is treated with a combination of medications and behavioral interventions. Treatment for sensory overload can be integrated into this protocol.
The best treatment for a sensory processing disorder is sensory integration therapy, which can be incorporated into physical or occupational therapy. Under this therapy, a person is exposed to sensory stimuli and learns how to respond appropriately.
If you’re trying to address sensory processing and ADHD for yourself or your child, try these steps:
Many people are aware of the connection between sensory processing disorder and autism, but fewer people know that sensory overload and ADHD often occur together. Sensory processing isn’t just a quirk of people with ADHD: it’s a real condition, rooted in brain differences. Speak with your healthcare provider and therapists about interventions that can help with sensory overload.
Sensory overload can make it difficult for people with ADHD to get through their daily routines. Sensory overload can also be frustrating, whether you’re the person experiencing it or a parent or caregiver trying to help a child cope.
Remember that people with sensory overload and ADHD aren’t trying to be difficult—they’re experiencing a very real symptom of their condition. Talk with your healthcare provider and experiment with sensory integration therapy and other interventions that can help you or your child better regulate and respond to sensory information.
When a person with ADHD experiences sensory overload, they can become so fixated on a certain sensation, they’re often unable to turn their attention away from the stimuli or focus on other tasks. This can make it difficult to meet expectations at school or work.
People who are experiencing sensory overstimulation from ADHD might be unable to focus on anything other than the sensation. They may be irritable, frustrated, or upset because the sensation is unpleasant to them. In some cases, people might pull at their shirt, block their ears or take other steps to try to stop the sensation.
Sensory issues and sensory processing disorders are prevalent in people with ADHD. Although scientists are still researching the exact correlation, research has shown that kids and adults with ADHD are more likely than neurotypical people to experience sensory overload.