Child Development

What to Know About ADHD and Sensory Overload

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Sensory overload occurs when one of the five senses is overwhelmed. Those who live with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be more apt to experience Sensory Processing Disorder, potentially leading to tantrums, emotional distress, irritability, and trouble with daily tasks.

What should individuals with ADHD and parents of those with ADHD be aware of when it comes to sensory overload? Perhaps more importantly, is there anything we know of that can help? 

Here’s what to know about ADHD and sensory overload - as well as what you can do about it. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), also called “sensory integration dysfunction,” is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as, “a condition characterized by difficulties in organizing, processing, and analyzing sensory input (touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound, smell, and taste).”

It’s a term used to describe sensory differences that affect a person’s life, and though it’s not a formal diagnosis, it is a concern that has been recognized for quite some time by professionals. Though sensory issues and Sensory Processing Disorder may not go away, they are treatable. 

Studies reveal that those with ADHD often have different reactions to everyday sensory events when compared to those who don’t, meaning that this is a common concern among people with ADHD, as well as other disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, it’s said that about 40% of children who live with ADHD also live with Sensory Processing Disorder. 

Causes of Overstimulation in People with ADHD

Overstimulation, or sensory overload, can happen when any of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, or hearing/sound) are overwhelmed beyond what one can process. While these things may not cause other people distress, discomfort, or overwhelm in the slightest, a person with sensory issues may experience them intensely.

It may appear that kids with sensory issues are misbehaving, but they are actually responding to severe overwhelm that feels uncontrollable. Causes of overstimulation in people with ADHD can include but aren’t at all limited to:

  • Lighting (lights that may not cause others distress could be too bright).
  • Crowded or cluttered spaces (these can be visually or otherwise over-stimulating - for example, a space crowded with people may be noisy).
  • Temperature (too hot or too cold).
  • Clothing (including the fabric, fit, or other issues, such as tags on the back of a shirt). 
  • Anything else a child may need to touch or come in physical contact with (bedding, car seats, booths or chairs in restaurants or at school, lotion, soap, or water). 
  • Food (including the texture of food, the taste of food, and/or the scent of food when it is cooking). 
  • Other scents (even those meant to be pleasurable, such as body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and perfume). 
  • Specific sounds (buzzing, chewing, fire alarms, certain frequency or pitch). 

Just like an individual with ADHD may be more apt to experience overstimulation, there are times when someone may also feel under-stimulated. Feeling under-stimulated can cause similar symptoms, such as restlessness, tantrums, and irritability. Either of these things may cause disruption at school, home, social situations, and so on. 

With all of that said, how do you know if it is or could be sensory overload that your child is facing? Understanding the potential symptoms one might experience when facing sensory overload can help.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

If your child experiences sensory overload, you may notice certain signs or symptoms when they are met with sensory stimuli, such as the causes of overstimulation mentioned above. Here are some signs of symptoms of sensory overload to look out for:

  • Tantrums
  • Irritability or agitation.
  • Restlessness, feeling/appearing “wound up,” or an inability to relax.
  • Physical discomfort.
  • Emotional distress (panic, stress, fear, nervousness, or anxiety).
  • Inability to ignore the sensory input that causes distress (for example, inability to ignore loud sounds). 
  • Avoidance of specific sensory input that causes distress. This may include the avoidance of specific objects, places, or something else like eating food.
  • Increased difficulty concentrating or focusing. 
  • Trouble talking to or otherwise engaging with others. 
  • Covering one’s eyes or ears to drown out the distressing stimuli. 
  • Crying. 

A child may express their discomfort through words or through any of the above standalone symptoms when they experience sensory overload. It’s vital to listen to your child when they express their sensory experiences; if a tag is “painful” to them, or if the lights are “too bright,” they may have Sensory Processing Disorder, and these sensations are likely very real to them. Once you notice or suspect signs of sensory overload, you can work to address them, which may include seeking treatment. 

Treating Sensory Overload

The most prevalent and widely used treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder is occupational therapy. This can help individuals cope with sensory overload. An occupational therapist is a professional who helps people with mental, physical, or developmental health concerns better function or engage in daily life activities, tasks, or occupations. Many children with ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, a combination of the two, and/or other similar concerns benefit from working with an occupational therapist. 

When a child works with an occupational therapist who treats Sensory Processing Disorder, they’ll often engage in structured exposure activities that allow them to adapt, react, and process sensory stimulation more effectively and with less distress.

These activities might include art projects (such as making items out of clay), eating or drinking (drinking water, eating a crunchy food/snack), physical activities (such as jumping on a trampoline, swinging, moving through obstacle courses, or balancing), or other activities, like touching small items with specific textures (such as sponges). The specific activities and methods used by an occupational therapist may depend partially on the needs, development, and abilities of your child. 

Treating sensory overload also often entails the development of coping skills to use when it occurs. Kids and adults can both benefit from learning to self-soothe as a means to manage sensory overload when it surfaces.

This could mean walking away from the situation, using comforting sensory objects (like weighted blankets and noise-canceling headphones), using breathing exercises, or something else. An occupational therapist can help an individual learn to self-soothe, but parents may also need to be intentional with their accountability of practicing this coping skill at home for long-term retention and habitual response.

How do you find an occupational therapist? If you’re looking for an occupational therapist for your child to work with, there are a number of different ways to find one. You may use a web search to look for one yourself, ask for a referral from a medical provider, such as your child’s pediatrician or therapist, contact your health insurance company to inquire about occupational therapists they cover who work with sensory concerns and ADHD, or use a provider directory. Sometimes, schools will have resources available.

You can discuss treatment with the occupational therapist first to get details about what treatment might entail. A child may see an occupational therapist in addition to engaging in other forms of support or treatment for ADHD specifically.

Learning to prevent sensory overload, too, is often a valuable part of treatment and symptom reduction in those who experience it. 

Prevention

What’s the best way to prevent sensory overload? 

Typically, preventing sensory overload will entail identifying recurring triggers of unhealthy responses or reactions. Note that different things may cause sensory overload for different people. Once you know what these triggers are, you can avoid them.

For example, you may notice that your child experiences overload easily in specific situations, such as those where loud noises are present, or you may notice that your child experiences sensory overload when they wear clothing with a tag sewn in the back, or that is made out of a specific kind of fabric.

If that’s the case, you may be more mindful of when you and your child engage in certain activities (IE, you may go to the museum or store at times when you expect there to be less noise - some spaces even have sensory-friendly days or hours), or you may pick out clothes for your child that you know they are comfortable in. 

Both in treatment and in prevention, lifestyle can play a role. Stress and lack of sleep can worsen sensory overload and any affiliated reactions. Stress management, getting enough sleep, making sure to hydrate and get adequate nutrition, and other forms of self-care are crucial.

Since some triggers are unavoidable at times, finding out and understanding what helps when your child experiences overload is also important. When you notice that a child may be approaching or experiencing sensory overload, or when the symptoms of possible sensory overload begin, it is often beneficial to reduce sensory stimuli.

This may mean using a calm voice to direct a child away from the space causing overload (for example, at a family party, you may calmly speak to your child and walk them to a quieter space until they start to feel more at ease), providing them with the aforementioned comforting sensory objects, and so on.

Even if you aren’t sure if this is what’s going on quite yet, as could be the case for younger kids, acknowledging a child’s distress and working to remedy it may be what leads you to find that sensory issues are what’s causing the disruption.

While it may take time, the right information and care can make a world of difference.

Conclusion

Sensory overload is something that many people who live with ADHD and other common disorders, like Autism Spectrum Disorder, experience. Treatment can help a child learn to cope, as can some at-home changes, methods, or forms of support.