Why Kids With ADHD May Experience Sensory Overload

By Amanda Morin
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At a Glance

  • There are many reasons kids with ADHD may experience sensory overload.

  • When kids struggle with paying attention or with switching gears, they can end up in a sensory overload situation.

  • Sensory overload can cause meltdowns.

Food textures. The feel of certain types of clothing. Changes in routine. You may recognize these as examples of things that can trigger sensory overload for kids with sensory processing issues.

But sensory overload can happen with kids who have other diagnoses too, including ADHD (also known as ADD). Many people also associate sensory issues with kids who have autism spectrum disorders. And sometimes ADHD and autism can co-occur.

However, kids who only have ADHD may experience sensory overload, too. Researchers are still looking into the exact reasons 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.

Here are some common reasons kids with ADHD may experience sensory overload.

Inattentiveness

Many kids with ADHD have trouble paying attention to what’s going on in their environment. And when a child isn’t tuned in to what’s going on around him, sensory information can sneak up on him.

Consider this scenario: You’re rushing to get out the door in the morning. Your child is wandering around the house without a shirt or his shoes on. You yank a shirt over his head and tell him he has two minutes to put his shoes on and get out to the car.

Once you’re in the car and on the way, he has a meltdown because his clothes “don’t feel right.”

Because he wasn’t paying attention, he didn’t even notice the items you gave him. But the shirt you grabbed was the one with the itchy tag and he accidentally put his shoes on the wrong feet.

By the time he became aware of what happened, it was too late. His uncomfortable clothing had already created a sensory overload situation.

Trouble With Flexible Thinking

Some kids with ADHD have trouble with a type of flexible thinking called set shifting. When it comes to solving problems, set shifting allows kids to see their mistakes and change the way they approach a situation. It also allows your child to move on from a thought or an activity to do something new.

But kids with ADHD can hyperfocus or perseverate. While your child is “stuck” in what he’s doing or thinking about, he’s not processing other information.

You may think he’s ready to move on when he tunes in to you again. However, he may have sensory overload from everything that’s finally registering with him.

Trouble With Self-Monitoring and Self-Regulation

For kids with ADHD, self-monitoring and self-regulation can be hard. Kids with ADHD have a hard time managing emotions, so they often overreact. And they can be impulsive and overactive. They can find it tough to keep track of what they’re doing and how well they’re doing it.

For example, maybe your child has a hard time sitting still during meals and rushes to leave the table without eating much at all. Half an hour later, he’s so hungry that he can’t think straight and you have a “hangry” kid on your hands.

Or maybe while playing with his toys, your child isn’t mindful of his need to use the bathroom. Before you know it, he’s crying that his stomach hurts or he’s melting down over the feel of wet clothes from having had an accident.

How to Help Your Child With Sensory Overload

Most kids experience sensory overload at one time or another. That includes kids without learning or thinking differences. But if your child’s ADHD is managed well and he’s having sensory issues that are getting in the way of everyday life, it’s good to seek further help.

It may mean he has a co-occurring condition that’s causing the sensory concerns.

You can start by speaking to your pediatrician or school about having your child see an occupational therapist. You can also:

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with ADHD can overreact and struggle to self-regulate in some environments.

  • Sensory overload can get in the way of everyday life for kids with ADHD.

  • An occupational therapist can help kids with ADHD and sensory issues.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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