Illustration of a character with pink hair and a troubled expression, with bold text 'ADHD & Sensory Overload' indicating the challenges faced by those with sensory processing issues.

ADHD Sensory Overload: Understanding the Connection

ADHD sensory overload occurs when individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience an overwhelming amount of sensory information, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and difficulty focusing. Strategies to manage this include creating a calm environment, using sensory aids like noise-canceling headphones, and practicing relaxation techniques to reduce the impact of sensory stimuli.

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Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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A word form our expert

How My Sensory Issues Delayed My ADHD Diagnosis

Did you know there's a strong link between ADHD and struggling with sensory issues? Despite how common this double-struggle is, this connection often flies under the radar, potentially leading to undiagnosed ADHD in both children and adults.

In this article, we'll discuss:

  • How my sensory processing issues  hid my ADHD for years and resulted in a late diagnosis.

  • The most common conditions that ADHD might get mistaken for when issues with sensory processing are present.

  • The difference between a general sensitivity to things like noise, smell and touch, and sensory processing disorder.

  • The overlapping symptoms between sensory processing disorder and ADHD, and how they exacerbate each other.

  • Strategies for managing sensory overload alongside ADHD that I’ve learnt over the years to be able to cope, and how you can, too.

You don’t have to suffer alone - sensory processing issues are valid, and I’m here to fill you in on why so many of us with ADHD struggle, and what we can do about it. 💕

How My Sensory Issues Delayed My ADHD Diagnosis

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is having a meltdown on my first day of school - but not for the reason you might think. It wasn't the idea of starting a new school that got me; the school shoes made my feet feel like they were on fire. 🙈

And that was just the beginning; it seemed like everything related to clothes, movement, and pressure was out to get me. I had to be tucked in super tight at night, or I couldn't sleep, and if my brother even dared to wiggle his feet against my seat, I'd lose it. And don't even get me started on how certain hairstyles felt like a form of medieval torture. 🤣 

A drawing of a young character with pink hair looking overwhelmed by various clothing items, representing the sensory overload experienced with common objects.

All of this made the usual kid stuff - like going to school or any family event where I had to dress up - really hard to deal with.  😔

My folks did what they could, taking me to the doctor and asking others for advice. But all they got back was a bunch of people telling them I was just being naughty, that they needed to be stricter, and that I should be disciplined or ignored when I 'had a tantrum'. 🙄 Unsurprisingly, those suggestions didn't work.

Image showing a young character with a thought bubble and a healthcare professional with a question mark above his head, reflecting confusion about the child's symptoms and various diagnoses.

Luckily, my mother always felt there was something more going on with me and decided to take me to a child psychologist. That's when I got given an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis - mainly because I had a lot of compulsive behaviors, like having to take clothes on and off a bunch of times before they felt 'right.' 🤔I also got diagnosed with OCD because I was always on edge and anxious, but looking back, it wasn't OCD - I was just a neurodivergent kid living in a world that didn't understand me. 😞

So, I had therapy, where an occupational therapist gradually exposed me to my most common triggers - also known as exposure therapy. My parents would have to bring in items that triggered me most, and the therapist would guide us through the process of slowly introducing these items to me, starting with the ones that caused the least discomfort. Initially, I was asked to touch or hold the clothing for a short period, which gradually increased over time. 

However, getting used to the easier triggers in therapy just didn't work out because we weren't tackling my ADHD and the associated anxiety - because nobody knew I had it. These issues made it hard to settle down with any trigger, big or small; every attempt to face these sensory challenges ended up making me hyperfocus on the wrong things or get distracted. Then, my anxiety would kick in, turning a slight worry into a meltdown. 😱

The plan was to gradually get used to the more triggering sensory inputs, but I couldn't even get past step one. I'd get freaked out, then get emotional, and all those times people told me I was just being naughty would come crashing back. It felt like too much, a big jumble of feelings and reactions that just didn't make sense for my young ADHD brain. 😖In the end, all this confusion and feeling overwhelmed meant we had to quit therapy. 

Over the years, the sensory triggers would sometimes improve, change, or go away - only to come back. Then, when I went off to university, my sound sensitivity started, too. 😬Living in student accommodation was hell on earth - I couldn't study or sleep, which meant my symptoms of ADHD, like procrastination, disorganization, and inattention, just got worse. 

A cartoon of a character with pink hair frowning with musical notes around, captioned 'But as I got older, my sensory issues didn't improve—in fact, they got worse.' to depict worsening sensory sensitivity.

When the pandemic hit, I was suddenly faced with more neighbor noise than usual - and all of my sensory issues kicked off again, all at once. That's when I began to see stuff online about the association between neurodiversity and sensory issues - and after my official ADHD diagnosis,  it finally clicked - it was ADHD all along. 😲

The thing is, hardly anyone knew about this link between sensory issues and ADHD back in the '90s, especially for girls. That's why it's so great that we have so much information and advice available today. 🥰

But for many of us, this led to years of living with undiagnosed ADHD and, all too often, being tagged with incorrect diagnoses.

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Why ADHD Often Gets Overlooked

Sensory issues in children can sometimes be misdiagnosed or confused with various other conditions due to overlapping symptoms or a misunderstanding of the child's sensory behaviors. 

Here are some conditions that sensory issues might be misdiagnosed as:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Children with sensory processing issues might display behaviors similar to those on the autism spectrum, like difficulties with social interactions or specific repetitive behaviors, leading to a potential misdiagnosis of ASD. However, as they are both neurodivergent conditions, it can be difficult to separate the two.

  • Anxiety Disorders: The discomfort and stress caused by sensory overload can resemble anxiety, causing children to be misdiagnosed with anxiety disorders when the root issue is sensory processing issues.

  • Behavioral Disorders: Sensory seeking or avoidance behaviors can be interpreted as oppositional or conduct-related issues, potentially leading to misdiagnosis of behavioral disorders like Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): The repetitive behaviors or rituals that children develop to cope with sensory sensitivities can sometimes be confused with the compulsions seen in OCD.

  • Learning Disabilities: Sensory processing issues can impact a child's ability to concentrate and learn in traditional educational environments, potentially leading to a misdiagnosis of a learning disability when the primary problem is sensory-based.

You Asked Us…

Is sensory overload ADHD or autism?

Sensory overload can occur in both ADHD and autism, reflecting heightened sensitivity to sensory input common in these conditions. It's key in differentiating sensory processing issues specific to each disorder.

Sensory Processing Difficulties… Or Sensory Processing Disorder?

While sensory processing issues definitely can impact people quite significantly, it's essential to distinguish between general sensory sensitivities and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). 

SPD is a complex neurological condition that significantly disrupts the efficient processing of sensory information, which is commonly observed in adults with ADHD. 

This disorder affects how the brain, the nervous system's central hub, receives, organizes, and interprets sensory messages from the body's receptors - eyes, ears, muscles, joints, skin, and inner ears. Individuals with SPD might feel as though they're separated from the world by a veil, experiencing life in a more muted or overwhelming way. 

For those with SPD, everyday experiences can feel like an assault, leading to physical and emotional distress over stimuli that most people easily ignore. Such sensitivities can significantly interfere with one's ability to function daily, describing feelings of being attacked or invaded by what many would consider ordinary sensory experiences.

Understanding the difference between general sensory processing issues and sensory processing disorder is crucial for identifying the right support and strategies for navigating the world more comfortably. 💕

An image of a smiling character holding two signs, 'SPD' and 'ADHD', with text explaining the importance of distinguishing between Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD for appropriate support.

You Asked Us…

What are the 3 patterns of sensory processing disorders?

The three patterns of Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) include Sensory Modulation Disorder, Sensory-Based Motor Disorder, and Sensory Discrimination Disorder. These patterns reflect challenges in managing sensory input, motor responses to sensory input, and correctly identifying sensory information.

Common Symptoms of Sensory Processing Issues

Many people with ADHD respond quite distinctly to sensory stimuli. From being easily overwhelmed in busy environments to seeking additional physical comforts, sensory challenges impact children and adults in various ways. 

Let's explore how these sensory experiences manifest across different age groups.

Children With ADHD

For children with ADHD, sensory experiences might be heightened across all senses or one or two in particular.

These commonly include:

  • Hearing: Overwhelmed by moderate to loud noises, yet may find comfort in repetitive sounds or music. Some might use headphones to reduce sensory input.

  • Touch: Attracted to diverse textures for exploration but can be highly uncomfortable with specific clothing textures. They might crave comforting physical touch like hugs, or prefer small spaces or pressure, like weighted blankets.

  • Sight: Prefers subdued lighting and can be captivated by visual puzzles or patterns, while bright lights or vibrant patterns may distract or upset them.

  • Taste & Smell: Food preferences can be extreme, from bland to spicy, or they may have specific aversions or attractions to smells. They may prefer eating the same thing every day and get distressed with changes to this routine.

  • Movement: Seeks activities that offer intense sensory feedback, such as swings or trampolines, and may struggle with the need to move constantly or stim. 

It's important to note that experimenting with the five senses is a normal part of childhood development. The real question revolves around how these sensory experiences align with a child's growth. If sensory preferences significantly impact a child's ability to function, develop, or reach milestones, it may warrant closer attention. 

Adults With ADHD

Similar to children, adults with ADHD experience heightened sensory sensitivities across various senses. However, the impact of these sensitivities takes on new dimensions in adulthood. Navigating social settings, workplaces, and even parenting requires adults to manage their sensory preferences in more complex environments. 

Examples of this include:

  • Hearing: Needing to wear earplugs or headphones during commutes to manage the stress of public transportation noise, or struggling with concentration at work due to a loud office environment, causing anxiety and decreased productivity.

  • Touch: Experiencing discomfort and distraction from wearing certain fabrics or items of clothing, or needing to use stress balls or fidget devices during meetings for tactile stimulation to maintain focus.

  • Sight: Feeling overwhelmed and experiencing headaches from prolonged exposure to bright, fluorescent lighting in a supermarket.

  • Taste & Smell: Feeling sick from strong smells such as perfume, cleaning products, or particular food, or tending to eat the same things constantly.

  • Movement: Feeling trapped and restless during long flights or meetings without the opportunity for movement, resulting in stress and irritability.

Feeling heightened sensitivity or seeking out specific sensory experiences doesn't necessarily mean someone has sensory issues or ADHD. Many individuals, neurotypical or otherwise, have preferences or sensitivities to certain types of sensory input. 

However, when these preferences significantly interfere with daily functioning, social interactions, or development, it might be a part of a broader pattern that needs a closer look.

You Asked Us…

What does an ADHD sensory overload look like?

An ADHD sensory overload appears as intense discomfort or distress in response to sensory stimuli, resulting in agitation or a need to escape the triggering environment.

What The Data Says on ADHD & Sensory Issues

Virtually anyone can have sensory processing issues, but they're especially common among those with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.

According to research:

  • One systematic review found that up  to 60%  of people with ADHD exhibit symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

  • Adults with ADHD report greater sensory sensitivity compared to those without ADHD, struggling more with distractions and the filtering of irrelevant stimuli, particularly in auditory and visual processing.

  • Brain imaging studies have identified atypical patterns of brain activity and connectivity in adults with ADHD, especially in the integration of visual and auditory information.

  • Sensory sensitivities affect a significant portion of adults with ADHD, with 43% of women and 22% of men reporting these issues, pointing to a notable gender difference in sensory processing issues.

  • Research suggests that children with ADHD may exhibit unique stress responses, including atypical cortisol levels, indicating a complex relationship between ADHD, sensory processing issues, and anxiety.

  • Research involving college students with sensory issues and ADHD found that sensory issues negatively impacted their experience at college, including their academic performance and social interactions, leading to difficulties in choosing appropriate study environments, preparing for exams, engaging in leisure activities, and forming meaningful social connections.

  • Children with either ASD or ADHD have similar levels of sensory processing issues, although their attention-related challenges are usually different.

How Sensory Sensitivity Effects ADHD Symptoms

If struggling with sensory sensitivity wasn't bad enough on its own, it can also dial up the intensity of how we experience our symptoms of ADHD.

This includes:

  • Inattention
    • Sensory overload can make it harder to filter out irrelevant stimuli, leading to increased distractibility.
    • Under-stimulation may prompt seeking additional sensory input, diverting focus from tasks.

  • Hyperactivity
    • Sensory-seeking behaviors may manifest as physical restlessness or fidgeting, amplifying hyperactive symptoms.
    • Overstimulation in environments like crowded places can heighten the need to move or escape, increasing hyperactivity.

  • Impulsivity
    • Difficulty in processing sensory information might lead to irrational or impulsive reactions to quickly alleviate discomfort.
    • Sensory seeking can trigger impulsive behavior as individuals attempt to satisfy an immediate sensory need without considering consequences.
    • If sensory overload becomes too much, impulsivity can make it difficult to manage frustration, potentially leading to angry outbursts.

When sensory overload hits, it feels like being caught in a whirlwind of everything and anything - all at once. Suddenly, you're overwhelmed, struggling to find a way out as the sensory stimulation becomes too much to bear. 

But it doesn't have to be this way - there are ways we can cope. 💕

Managing Sensory Hypersensitivity & Sensory Processing Disorder

Coping with sensory issues, whether Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or sensory sensitivity, involves strategic planning and creating a supportive environment to manage sensory overload effectively.

Here's how to do it.

  • If you need to go somewhere that usually overwhelms you, try to go during quieter times. Sometimes, you can see the less busy times on Google and plan accordingly.

  • Write down a detailed list of what you need before shopping or attending events to keep focused and minimize time spent in overwhelming situations.

  • If going somewhere during a busy time is unavoidable, ensure you're well-rested, wearing comfy clothes, and have adequately eaten and drank enough water.

  • Establish a quiet, comforting area you can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed.

  • Keep noise-canceling headphones, earplugs (like Loops), weighted blankets, or fidget toys handy for immediate relief when you feel a sensory meltdown coming on.

  • Get to know your triggers; if you struggle to keep track, note places and situations in which you've experienced sensory overload to identify triggers and plan to avoid or minimize exposure to them.

  • Consider therapy or occupational therapy specializing in sensory processing to develop personalized coping strategies.

Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and educate those around you on how to provide support; you have the right not to live miserably as long as you also consider the needs of those around you, too. 💕

A serene illustration of a character with pink hair and closed eyes, captioned 'There are ways to find peace, even when you're sensitive to the everyday things that don't bother most people.'

Key Takeaways

  • Sensory issues in children can be misinterpreted as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and learning disabilities due to overlapping symptoms.

  • It's critical to distinguish between general sensory sensitivities and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a condition that significantly disrupts the processing of sensory information, often found in individuals with ADHD.

  • People with ADHD, from children to adults, experience heightened sensory sensitivities, affecting their interactions with the world and daily functioning.

  • Sensory sensitivities can exacerbate ADHD symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, making it challenging to navigate daily life.

  • There are many ways we can plan and cope ahead with sensory overload or sensory processing disorder. This includes:
    • Planning outings during quieter times to minimize sensory input.
    • Preparing detailed lists to streamline tasks and reduce time in potentially overwhelming environments.
    • Utilizing sensory aids like noise-canceling headphones or weighted blankets for relief from overwhelm.
    • Seek specialized therapy, such as occupational therapy, for personalized coping strategies.

Living with sensory processing challenges doesn't make you a hassle or less worthy of enjoying life. It's a valid experience to struggle with, especially for us neurodivergent folks. 

You absolutely deserve to find your peace, just like anyone else. Tweaking, planning, and open conversations can make this often loud, glaring world more manageable. 

What’s Next?

Want more adult ADHD insights? We’ve got you covered with these related articles. 👇

Taming Your Temper With ADHD

The Emotional Rollercoaster of ADHD and Chronic Irritability

Strategies to Manage and Prevent ADHD-Related Meltdowns

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can adults with ADHD effectively manage sensory overload?

Adults with ADHD can manage sensory overload by identifying common triggers, such as loud noises and bright lights, using sensory aids (noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets), and practicing deep breathing techniques. Regular consultations with healthcare professionals experienced in adult ADHD and sensory processing disorders can provide additional strategies tailored to individual needs.

What are the most common sensory issues experienced by ADHD patients?

ADHD patients frequently encounter sensory processing problems, including an overwhelming response to sensory input like loud sounds, visual stimuli, and strong smells. This sensory over-responsivity can trigger significant emotional responses and physical symptoms, making everyday situations challenging. Sensory issues can affect cognitive processing, leading to trouble paying attention and difficulties with organizational skills.

Can sensory toys help individuals experiencing sensory overload due to ADHD?

Yes, sensory toys can benefit individuals with ADHD experiencing sensory overload. These toys help manage sensory processing issues by providing focused sensory input, which can help divert attention from overwhelming environmental factors. Sensory toys can support the nervous system in processing sensory input more effectively, aiding in attention and emotional regulation.

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