Sensory Overload and ADHD: What to Know

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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. 

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ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder 

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.

  • Lack of self-regulation: People with ADHD often struggle to regulate their emotions or reactions. Because of that, a sensation that is a minor irritation to neurotypical people can result in an outburst for people with ADHD. 
  • Trouble with transitions: People with ADHD often struggle with transitions, which is also known as trouble with flexible thinking. This can cause people to fixate on an uncomfortable situation and have trouble turning their attention elsewhere. 
  • Lack of awareness: People with ADHD are sometimes distracted, disorganized or rushed. This can lead to sensory overload when they encounter a sensation they don’t like—like an itchy coat—but are unable to remedy it quickly. 

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

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:

  • Picky eating habits, particularly avoiding foods with textures that the person finds unpleasant
  • Trouble settling down after activities
  • Sensitivity to smells or sounds
  • Dislike of certain fabrics, clothing items, or shoes
  • Discomfort with certain movements, like swinging or riding an elevator

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. 

Causes of Overstimulation in People With ADHD

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:

Texture

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.

Touch

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. 

Taste

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

Sound

Loud noises like a fire alarm or even subtle noises like someone chewing can cause stress. 

Smell

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. 

Sight

Visual clutter can provide too much stimulation. 

Treating and Managing Sensory Overload in ADHD

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:

  • Speak with your healthcare provider. Sensory overload is common in kids with ADHD, and your healthcare provider might have strategies to suggest. 
  • Identify triggers. Keep a diary to help identify the triggers or things that overwhelm your child. Where reasonable, avoid these. 
  • Learn self-soothing techniques. Help your child learn how to calm themselves once they’ve become overwhelmed. This can be difficult for people with ADHD, so you might need to work with an experienced therapist. 
  • Follow a routine. A routine can help with predictability and mitigate ADHD symptoms like disorganization and trouble with transitions, giving more resources to cope with ADHD. 
  • Practice regulation. Find the tricks—like exercise, meditation, or painting—that help you or your child regulate their reactions and sensory input.

Summary

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. 

A Word From Verywell 

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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does sensory overload feel like in ADHD?

    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. 

  • What does ADHD overstimulation look like?

    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. 

  • Can sensory issues be a symptom of ADHD?

    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. 

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