Sensory Overload & ADHD Interventions

By: Corrina Horne

Updated February 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

Attention defecit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) comes with a lot of preconceived notions. Often, the "H" in ADHD receives the most attention, with many people assuming that children with ADHD are constantly bouncing off walls, fidgeting, and not paying attention. This is a narrow understanding of ADHD, however, and at best displays a tiny sliver of the complexity of ADHD and how it affects those with a diagnosis. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is named for its varied and multifaceted alterations of one's mind. It isn't simply a matter of being easily distracted. Instead, it is a neurological difference in which paying attention, recalling information, controlling impulses, and staying still can be extremely difficult or impossible.

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The challenges present in ADHD are difficult for both children and adults. They impact the way you work through everyday situations, including school, work, and relationships. For some, though, ADHD is not the only condition at play. Sensory processing disorder and similar processing problems are also thrown into the mix, making things that may seem simple or mundane overwhelming.

What Is Sensory Overload? ADHD and Overwhelm

Sensory overload might be an actual condition called Sensory Processing Disorder(SPD) or may describe a person who is particularly sensitive to outside stimuli, such as sounds, sights, and smells. Sensory overload is typically used to describe the sensation of becoming overwhelmedor underwhelmedby one's sensory system. There are actually 8 senses identified within the human nervous system, including the five typical senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) as well as the vestibular system, interoception system, and proprioception system. The vestibular system determines where your body is in space. Your proprioception system identifies where your limbs are in relation to the rest of your body, and your interoception system identifies internal cues, such as hunger and toileting needs.

Sensory overload can influence one of these senses, a handful of these senses, or all 8 at once. When even one of these systems is overwhelmed (by the noise of a large crowd, for instance), your body and brain can both begin what is essentially a "shutdown" sequence.All of your energy and attention are focused on keeping calm and shutting out the overwhelm. This can look like rocking, humming, smashing hands against ears, or even a meltdown. Meltdowns might look like they are actually creating more problems, but some people might find comfort and peace in being able to control the loud pitch of their voice or the tactile sensation of banging their fists on the ground.It might seem like further overwhelming a bodily system, but it is taking back control of that sensation.

Sensory Overload in ADHD

It is easy to imagine how overwhelming sensitivity in any one of the eight senses can be. Very little control is to be had over outside stimuli, particularly in settings outside of one's home, in school, or in a busy grocery store or parking lot. Understandably, many children with sensory disorders might have difficulty with communication, socialization, and academic work. There are so many uncontrollable, unknowable factors, and the slightest hint of overload can make concentration impossible. This is especially true for individuals who have ADHD and sensory overload.

ADHD is characterized by a difficulty to concentrate and a lack of impulse control – both of which can be negatively impacted by sensory overwhelm. Children with SPD or other sensory issues can find it tough to concentrate and control impulses without the addition of ADHD. Adding the struggles of ADHD to the struggles of sensory issues can mean the difference between successfully navigating overwhelming situations and requiring substantial help in getting through a single school or workday.

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How to Treat ADHD and SPD

Treating ADHD and SPD or non-diagnosed sensory overload may often overlap. Just as individuals with ADHD may benefit from enlisting the help of an occupational therapist, many with SPD or general sensory overload concerns find immense relief when working with an occupational therapist.

Occupational therapy works to engage children and adults in some of the activities that cause the greatest amount of fear or discomfort in a controlled, safe setting. Exposing yourself to the sources of pain, discomfort, or fear can help eliminate some of the terror.This will allow you to develop tools and strategies to manage the symptoms of discomfort in a practical, hands-on way with someone there with you to guide you and offer some assistance. Occupational therapists can work on any of the 8 sensory systems to eliminate some of the systems of sensory overload.

The 8 Senses: How Treatment Works

Senses can be divided during treatment but will more likely be treated as a unit, at least in part. Children might be encouraged to listen to music, for instance, while working to solve a puzzle. The presence of both auditory and visual stimuli can be overwhelming but going at a gentle pace and with a guiding hand can eliminate some of the difficulty.

Children might also be encouraged to walk across difficult terrain to help create more balance and safety within theproprioception and vestibular systems. At first, an occupational therapist might hold the child's hands during the trek, before moving to a one-handed assist, and closing with no assistance at all. For some children, this task alone can take weeks to masteror even longer. The struggle to maintain balance while coordinating steps and reaches can be wholly overwhelming and could initially culminate in refusal or a meltdown.

When creating a treatment plan for children with ADHD and sensory overload, occupational therapists will first conduct an assessment to determine which systems and struggles hold the greatest amount of difficulty for the individual in question. Some children's auditory systems are particularly sensitive, while visual stimuli does not encourage much of a struggle. For others, loud noises are inconsequential but being asked to complete a physical task results in outright terror.

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As treatment progresses, goals will change, and children's needs will be altered. Although occupational therapy is enormously helpful in treating both ADHD and sensory overload, the progress achieved is unlikely to be dramatic or fast. Instead, occupational therapy works best over a prolonged period, with small, achievable goals as the main focus, before moving on to larger goals and trials. This allows patients' systems to grow, adapt, and heal without creating further sources of stress. Many people, children especially, utilize occupational therapy for years and may continue to visit an occupational therapist until well into adulthood.

Accommodations at Work and School

Sensory processing disorder is not currently recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a separate, identifiable condition. Those who have been given the label are usually diagnosed with another condition, and the term "SPD" is given to describe additional challenges within that disorder. ADHD, however, is both recognized in the DSM-5 and protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA), which means that school (and sometimes work) accommodations are a matter of law, rather than a parental preference.

ADHD accommodations in school include either an Individualized Education Program(IEP) or a 504 plan, both of which allow parents and educators to meet and determine different intervention strategies to help children succeed in an academic setting. If sensory issues are of particular concern, children might be able to qualify for different test-taking strategies, different teaching strategies, and more one-on-one time with an instructor to try to eliminate some of the overwhelming stimuli naturally present within a classroom.

Although accommodations are not offered in a workplace setting in exactly the same way as a classroom, there is some protection offered by the ADA. Individuals with a qualifying diagnosis cannot be discriminated against as a result of their condition, though there may be ways to work around this. Management of your disorder and corresponding systems will likely benefit both you and your employer when moving into the workforce.

Living with ADHD and Sensory Overload

Living with the challenges of both ADHD and sensory overload can be overwhelming at best and can present innumerable challenges in all walks of life. Happily, there are effective treatment measures for both of these conditions, and they do not always require intensive time commitments or immense amounts of money. Leading a healthy lifestyle will lend a hand in managing symptoms.Engaging the help of an in-person or online therapist, both in terms of talk therapy and cognitive therapy, and in terms of disorder-specific therapies, such as occupational therapy, will also be beneficial.

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If you’re considering online therapy, evidence has shown that online therapy can be effective in the treatment of ADHD symptoms. A literature review of 11 articles pointed toward improved outcomes for participants who sought treatment online. Participants were also satisfied with the delivery mode for this type of treatment. Online therapy is also effective in treating mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you’re still struggling with whether to see a therapist, you can gather more information at BetterHelp. This first step might be the step you need on your path to learning how to deal with ADHD and/or sensory overload. If you decide to meet with a professional and when you’re ready to do so, you will be able to meet wherever it is most comfortable and convenient for you and at a time that suits you best. Below are a couple of counselor reviews from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

So far Lauren has been great! I tend to get distracted from my main focus often, just simply because I am dealing with several stressors at once, but she does an amazing job not only juggling through it but keeping me focused as well!

I was skeptical of counseling before I started, Brianna was the first counselor I was paired with. After only 2 months of sessions once a week for an hour, I have already seen improvement with my overall mental health as well as how I handle stressful/anxiety situations. She is friendly and understands my concerns. She keeps a structured session (as requested). She lets me choose the topic and keeps me on track. She helps me on my bad days and makes me better days feel like great days. 

Isolation and alienation can both be a part of living with ADHD and sensory overload but need not be lasting.Seeking intervention and assistance for both of these conditions can dramatically lessen the fear and discomfort felt in overwhelming situations and can teach you coping strategies to ease the symptoms of both disorders. Although it may not be conventional, simply removing yourself from the situation may be necessary. In school, this can look like requesting a few minutes to go to the bathroom or hallway to breathe and regain calm. At work, excusing yourself for a moment to step outside could also help regain a sense of equilibrium. Taking breaks to stretch, walk, or take deep breaths can help combat the challenges of living day-to-day with ADHD and sensory overload.


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