The difference between sensory processing challenges and ADHD

By Peg Rosen

Expert reviewed by Ellen Braaten, PhD

ADHD and sensory processing challenges can appear similar in some ways. And they often co-occur. But they have many differences, too, from what they look like to how they’re treated. This table compares the two.

 

ADHD

Sensory processing challenges

What is it?

neurodevelopmental condition that makes it hard to focus, sit still, and think before acting.

An over- or undersensitivity to sensory input such as sights, sounds, flavors, smells and textures.

Signs you may notice

Seems daydreamy, confused, or bored

Has tantrums due to lack of self-control

Struggles with organization and completing tasks

Has trouble following directions

Struggles to sit still during quiet activities

Fidgets and needs to pick up and fiddle with everything

Is constantly moving

Oversensitivity:

Has trouble focusing and filtering out distractions

Becomes upset and overwhelmed in noisy, crowded places

Has difficulty with new routines and other change

Shifts and moves around, can’t get comfortable

Is very sensitive to the way clothing feels

Undersensitivity:

Constantly needs to touch people or things

Seem clumsy or uncoordinated

Possible emotional and social impact

Trouble following social rules can make it hard to make and keep friends. Frequent negative feedback for acting out or not paying attention can impact self-esteem and motivation.

Feeling anxious in or avoiding crowded and noisy places can make it hard to socialize. Peers may avoid or exclude a child who plays too roughly or doesn’t respect their personal space.

Professionals who can help

Pediatricians, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, nurse practitioners, child psychiatrists:

Diagnose ADHD and prescribe ADHD medication.

May also look for other issues like anxiety.

Clinical child psychologists:

Provide behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy 

Diagnose ADHD and mental health issues that may co-occur, like anxiety.

May also test for learning differences.

Pediatric neuropsychologists:

Diagnose ADHD and common mental health issues that may co-occur.

May also evaluate for learning differences.

Educational therapists and organizational coaches:

Work on organization and time management skills.

Occupational therapists:

Help kids learn coping skills for challenging situations.

Provide sensory integration therapy that helps kids respond to sensory input in an appropriate way.

Clinical child psychologists:

Provide behavior therapy to teach kids skills to manage their actions and interactions.

Provide cognitive behavioral therapy to help with emotional issues related to their sensory challenges.

Diagnose ADHD and mental health issues that may co-occur with sensory challenges.

May also evaluate for learning differences.

Developmental-behavioral pediatricians:

Prescribe medication for anxiety to relieve panic responses.

Accommodations the school may provide under an IEP or 504 plan

Extended time on tests, including standardized tests

A seat close to the teacher and away from distractions

A larger, more private work space to get work done

Long assignments broken into smaller chunks

Worksheets with fewer questions

Movement breaks

A quiet workspace or calm down area

A seat away from bothersome sounds

Noise-canceling headphones or ear buds in busy places like assemblies

Warnings about loud noises like fire drills

A consistent daily routine

Sensory breaks

Strategies that families can try at home

Create daily routines to provide structure.

Use visual schedules and checklists to help your child stay organized.

Allow for breaks during homework and study time.

Give advance warning about changes in the schedule and explain what your child can expect in new situations.

Prepare your child for social gatherings or new situations.

Keep earplugs or ear buds handy.

Teach about dangerous situations your child may not be sensitive to, like bitter cold and burning heat.

Buy divided plates if your child is bothered when foods touch.

Look for tagless, seamless clothes in super-soft fabrics.

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