Sensory Overload And ADHD Interventions

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is generally named for its varied and multifaceted symptoms. Paying attention, recalling information, controlling impulses, and staying still can be very difficult for people living with ADHD. For some, though, ADHD may not be the only condition affecting the brain's ability to cope. Sensory processing disorder and similar processing challenges may also affect some people with ADHD, potentially making things that may appear to be simple or mundane seem overwhelming. Occupational therapy and various coping mechanisms and accommodations at work or school can be helpful for those experiencing sensory overload from too much stimulation. Online or in-person talk therapy can also be helpful for parents of children with sensory overload, as well as adults living with this symptom.

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Experiencing sensory overload and ADHD symptoms?

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload can refer to a condition called sensory processing disorder (SPD), or it may describe the experience of being particularly sensitive to external stimuli, such as loud sounds, sights, and strong smells. There can be eight senses identified within the human nervous system, including the five typical senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) as well as the vestibular senses, interoception senses, and proprioception senses.

The vestibular system generally determines where your body is in space. Meanwhile, the proprioception system can identify where your limbs are in relation to the rest of your body, and your interoception system may identify internal bodily sensations, such as hunger and toileting needs. Some people mistakenly think that nutritional deficiencies cause sensory disorders, but research shows that this is not true. Doctors don’t know what causes SPD but believe there may be a genetic component.  

Overwhelming sensory input can influence one of these senses, a handful of these senses, or all eight at once. When even one of these systems is overwhelmed by competing sensory information (by the noise of a large crowd or the flashing lights of a concert, for instance), your body and brain can both begin what is essentially a "shutdown" sequence. All your energy and attention may be focused on keeping calm and shutting out the overwhelming stimulus, and you may have trouble with emotional control. Self-soothing techniques can look like rocking, humming, smashing hands against ears, or even a meltdown. 

Meltdowns might seem as if they create more problems. However, 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 can also be seen as self-control or a heightened sense of fight-or-flight to help them take back control after too much sensory input.

Sensory overload ADHD: Managing sensory stimuli

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (J Child Psychol Psychiatry) found that sensory over-responsivity can occur independently or with other mental health conditions, but it also frequently occurs with other conditions, like ADHD. 

Overwhelming sensitivity in any one of the eight senses can make it very difficult for those managing ADHD to function with ease. Very little control may be had over outside stimuli, particularly in settings outside of one's home, in school, or in a busy grocery store or parking lot where it may seem impossible to reduce sensory input. Many children with sensory disorders experience difficulty with communication and academic work. There can be many uncontrollable, unknowable factors, and the slightest hint of overload can make concentration seem impossible. This may be especially true for individuals who have ADHD and sensory overload.

ADHD is often characterized by difficulty concentrating and a lack of impulse control, both of which can be negatively impacted by sensory sensitivity. Children with SPD or other sensory challenges can find it tough to concentrate and control impulses, even without the addition of a co-diagnosis with ADHD. Adding the challenges of an ADHD brain to the difficulties of sensory issues can mean the difference between successfully navigating overwhelming situations and requiring substantial help in getting through a single day at school or work.

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Treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sensory processing disorder

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 this type of professional.

Occupational therapy generally works to engage participants in some of the activities that cause the greatest amount of fear or discomfort in a controlled, safe setting. Practicing these challenging activities in a safe setting can enable clients to develop tools and strategies to manage the symptoms of discomfort in a practical, hands-on way with someone there to guide them and offer assistance.

How treatment works

Senses can be divided during treatment but will more likely be treated as a unit, at least in part. Individuals 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 difficulties.

Children might also be encouraged to walk across difficult terrain to create more balance and safety within the body. 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 or more to master. The struggle to maintain balance while coordinating steps and reaches can be overwhelming and could initially culminate in refusal or a meltdown.

When creating a treatment plan for children with ADHD to manage sensory processing disorder, occupational therapists may first conduct an assessment to identify triggers and determine which systems and struggles hold the greatest amount of difficulty for the individual in question. For example, noise canceling headphones may be helpful for some children whose auditory systems can be particularly sensitive, but they won’t do much for those who are prone to overload from visual stimuli. For others, loud noises may be inconsequential, but being asked to complete a physical task may result in outright terror.

Experiencing sensory overload and ADHD symptoms?

As treatment progresses, goals will likely change, and children's needs may adjust as well. Although occupational therapy can be enormously helpful in treating both ADHD and sensory overload, the progress achieved is unlikely to be dramatic or fast. 

Instead, occupational therapy tends to work best over a prolonged period, with small, achievable goals as the focus, before moving on to larger goals and trials. This frequently allows clients' 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” can be given to describe additional challenges within that disorder. 

ADHD accommodations in school may include an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan, both of which can allow parents and educators to meet and determine 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 and teaching strategies, as well as more one-on-one time with an instructor to eliminate some of the overwhelming stimuli that can be present in a classroom.

Living with ADHD and sensory overload

Living with the challenges of both ADHD and sensory overload and any neurodevelopmental disorders can be overwhelming and may present challenges in many parts of life. However, there are often effective treatment options for both conditions, and they do not always require intensive time commitments or immense amounts of money. 

Leading a healthy lifestyle will likely help to manage symptoms. Engaging the help of an in-person or online therapist can also be beneficial.

Living with ADHD and sensory overload can be overwhelming. Although you may wish to reach out for professional help, the process of finding a therapist and scheduling an appointment may seem daunting. Online therapy can make it quick and easy to match with a licensed therapist, and you may be able to schedule sessions outside of typical office hours to fit them into your existing schedule. 

More research may be needed regarding the effectiveness of online therapy for sensory overload and sensory processing disorder. However, one systematic review indicates that online therapy can be an effective form of treatment for ADHD and its related symptoms.

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When a person experiences sensory over-responsivity, they may be experiencing sensory overload. In some cases, they may be living with sensory processing disorder or SPD. When combined with ADHD, sensory overload can be overwhelming and challenging to manage. The best types of treatment for a person experiencing sensory overload usually includes a combination of occupational therapy, online or in-person talk therapy, and accommodations at school or work.

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