If you’re able to read this blog or even listen to someone reading it to you, that’s your sensory system at work, specifically your visual and/or auditory systems. Your ability to read is simply your brain processing the information (stimuli) being seen or heard in the case of this blog. Likewise, when you eat an ice cream it is your brain that tells you what flavour it is, most probably by processing the colour (vision), smell (olfactory), and taste (gustatory). This is called sensory processing. And it is a seemingly natural phenomenon for the neurotypical folks!
However, sensory processing issues are very common among the neurodivergent. Through this blog, we’ll help you understand the various sensory challenges faced by those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), their associated symptoms, impact, and management strategies.
Understanding sensory processing
Our nervous system receives, interprets, and appropriately responds to stimuli (sensory information) from our environments. This three-step process is called sensory processing. It involves combining sensory inputs from the sensory systems – visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile, proprioception and vestibular senses.
What is ADHD?
ADHD impairs the child or individual’s ability to control their spontaneous responses. It typically leads to inattentiveness, inability to follow instructions, a dislike for routine, a tendency to blurt out remarks, and other similar behavioural disruptions. People with ADHD may also display hyperactive behaviour. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can impact learning. However, it is not a learning disability.
Types of sensory issues in ADHD
Sensory processing issues are one of the major symptoms of ADHD. In fact, research indicates that sensory processing issues are more common in individuals with ADHD compared to the neurotypical.
The range of sensory responsiveness people can exhibit is known as sensory processing continuum. It is divided into three categories:
- Sensory overresponsivity: Often referred to as sensory defensiveness, it is a type of sensory issue frequently seen in individuals with ADHD. It is characterised by heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and a strong (invariably negative) reaction to even ordinary sensory input. This type of sensory issue is triggered by: loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, and certain textures.
- Sensory underresponsivity: Sensory underresponsivity is another aspect of sensory modulation difficulties in ADHD. It is characterised by reduced sensitivity to sensory stimuli, which could look like failure to notice or respond to sensory input, even something that may be potentially harmful.
- Sensory seeking: Sensory seeking behaviors, characterized by a constant search for sensory input, are common in individuals with ADHD. It is characterised by restlessness and lack of focus. This type of sensory processing disorder urges the individual to actively seek out sensory input and engage in repetitive or unusual behaviors just to satisfy sensory cravings.
Most commonly observed sensory issues in ADHD
Clothing sensory issues
Tactile stimulation, especially from certain types of textures and fabrics are disliked by people with ADHD. Rough socks, clothing tags, and itchy sweaters are common triggers for clothing sensory issues. In many individuals with ADHD, the textures of certain foods, body lotions, etc. can create an instant aversion. The best way around clothing sensory issues is to switch to tagless and seamless clothes, comfortable fabrics like cotton or mulmul, and loose fitting clothes. Additionally, gradual desensitisation of new textures and fabrics can help reduce the discomfort.
Food sensory issues
Hypersensitivity to certain tastes, smells, and textures, selective eating, and aversions are common food sensory issues in ADHD. The best way around food sensory issues is gradual desensitisaiton of new flavours and foods, offering familiar foods, modifying textures (purees instead of whole vegetables, steamed or caramelised fruits), relaxing mealtime environments without too many bright lights, consistent mealtime routines, sensory exploration with food, handling ingredients and cooking together, and more.
Occupational and feeding therapists often recommend keeping a log of patterns, specific textures or foods, and triggers that the individual with ADHD has trouble with.
Touch sensory issues
Individuals with ADHD can have hypersensitive or hyposensitive tactile systems, causing heightened or reduced sensitivity (respectively) to touch sensations like physical contact, textures, clothing, etc.
Sensory play and bins are often used by occupational therapists to help children and adults with ADHD manage their touch-related sensory issues.
Causes of sensory overload in ADHD
Individuals with ADHD can experience a sensory overload when one or a combination of the senses is overstimulated. It can happen due to the following triggers:
- Bright lights
- Loud noise
- Being in crowded places
- Doing too many things at once
- Tactile stimulation like itchy socks, squishy foods, etc.
- Strong smells
- Stress and anxiety
- Not being able to tune out irrelevant stimuli
- Emotional dysregulation
Signs of sensory overload in ADHD
Sensory overload can trigger extreme symptoms, some of which are listed below:
- Difficulty focusing
- Panic attacks
- Emotional outbursts
- Increased anxiety and stress
- Sleep issues
What happens when ADHD and SPD intersect?
It is important to bear in mind that not all individuals with ADHD get diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD). However, there are plenty of cases when the two diagnoses converge. It hints at the possibility of an underlying neural basis or simply that one condition can exacerbate the symptoms of the other. The intersection of these two distinct conditions can result in increased distractibility, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation. A child with ADHD and SPD may find it challenging to be attentive in class as well as engage in classroom activities.
While both disorders can be managed to a great extent with occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, and environmental modifications, diagnosing both in the same individual is challenging due to overlapping symptoms. Furthermore, both conditions can occur alongside other conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This increases the challenge of making an accurate diagnosis.
Sensory issues in adults with ADHD
One of the most common misconceptions about ADHD is that as the individual grows older, the severity of the symptoms abate. This is untrue. Adults with ADHD also experience sensory sensitivities and processing issues. Sensitivity to auditory, stimuli, visual, and tactile stimuli can stay well into adulthood. Adults with ADHD can still experience sensory overload. They may have difficulties in initiating and carrying social interactions, self-regulation, as well as staying focused at work environments.
Stress management, occupational therapy, environment modulations, self-awareness and a keen understanding of one’s sensory issues, open communication with colleagues, and sensory regulation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, and sensory breaks are ways to help manage sensitivities.
Managing sensory issues in ADHD
Plexus Bangalore and Hyderabad offer a combination of the following therapies and interventions to help manage sensory issues in ADHD:
- Behaviour modeling therapy
- Play therapy
- Systematic desensitisation
- Contingency management
- Sensory diets
- Environmental modifications
The above therapies are combined to devise a holistic and customised rehabilitation programme that supports the individual’s diagnosis, severity of symptoms, and personal goals.
If you wish to know more about our sensory issues management strategies, do reach out to us today.
Are ADHD people sensory sensitive?
Most individuals with ADHD are sensory sensitive, with many of them being hypersensitive.
What does ADHD overstimulation look like?
Headaches, light-headedness, nausea, and increased anxiety are some of the earliest signs of ADHD overstimulation, also known as sensory overload.
How does ADHD affect the sensory system?
ADHD can cause increased sensory sensitivity, leading to issues in proprioception, vision, auditory and tactile sensory processing.
What are common sensory issues in ADHD?
Most common sensory issues in ADHD pertain to tactile and taste. Itchy sweaters, foods with certain textures, etc. can increase sensory sensitivity.
What are signs of sensory issues?
Typically, irritability, nausea, panic attacks, agitation, and lightheadedness are some signs of sensory issues.
How do sensory issues start?
There is no proper time or manner in which sensory issues start. Research indicates that the issues have something to do with the brain’s inability to process and organise sensory information. Most cases of sensory processing issues begin in childhood itself.
Do sensory issues go away?
Sensory issues are permanent. They can only be managed with proper therapy and timely intervention.