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ADHD and sensory overload

By Amanda Morin

Food textures. The feel of certain types of clothing. Changes in routine. Sensory overload happens when something overstimulates one or more of the senses. There’s suddenly too much information coming in for the brain to process. It’s common in people with sensory processing issues. 

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Many people associate sensory overload with kids who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But it can happen with other diagnoses too, like  ADHD . Researchers are still looking into exactly why this happens. But they’ve found there are certain types of sensory information, like clothing and food textures, that are more likely to cause it.

Some ADHD symptoms — like trouble paying attention to what’s going on around you — may lead to sensory overload. When you’re not tuned in, sensory information can sneak up on you.

Imagine rushing to leave in the morning and suddenly realizing how late it is. In the two minutes you have, you grab the first shirt and pair of shoes you find and throw them on. But the shirt you grabbed has an itchy tag, and the shoes pinch your feet. Once you’re on your way, it’s too late. Your uncomfortable clothing has already created a sensory overload situation. 

There are also other reasons people with ADHD may experience sensory overload. Trouble with self-regulation can be a factor. So can struggling with switching gears ( flexible thinking ). 

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The connection to flexible thinking

Some people with ADHD have trouble with set shifting — a type of flexible thinking. Set shifting allows people to see mistakes and change how they approach a situation. It also helps them move on from a thought or an activity to something else.

When people get “stuck” in what they’re doing or thinking about, they’re not processing other information. Then, when they tune back in and register everything that’s happening, they may experience sensory overload.

Learn more about “getting stuck,” or perseveration .

Managing emotions and sensory overload

For people with ADHD, self-monitoring and  self-regulation  can be hard. They can have a hard time managing emotions. So they might overreact to things that don’t seem like a big deal to others.

Some kids have a hard time sitting still during meals and rush to leave the table without eating much at all. And some adults get so focused on work that they forget to eat. They’re not self-monitoring and tuning in to how their body feels. In both cases, eventually they’re so hungry that they can’t think straight and get “hangry.” 

Learn more about ADHD and trouble managing emotions

How to help kids with sensory overload

Most kids experience sensory overload at one time or another. But even when a child’s ADHD is managed well, there still may be sensory issues that get in the way of everyday life. When that happens, it’s important to seek further help.

Parents and caregivers: Start by talking with a health care provider or teacher about a referral to an  occupational therapist . You can also explore  sensory strategies to try at home .

Educators: Explore classroom accommodations for sensory processing issues .

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom