Sensory overload can occur as a symptom in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the senses becomes overstimulated in some way.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition in which the individual has trouble paying attention to their surroundings, controlling their impulses, or managing their energy levels.

Although sensory overload can affect anyone, it is most common in people, particularly children, with ADHD or other sensory or neurodevelopmental conditions. Anything that stimulates multiple senses can lead to sensory overload.

Keep reading to learn more about sensory overload and ADHD, including the causes and how to manage the symptoms.

Person experiencing sensory overload on busy city streets. Share on Pinterest
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Sensory overload occurs when something, usually an environmental factor, overstimulates one or more of the five senses. Different stimuli can compete for attention, making it impossible for the brain to process the information it receives. When this happens, the person experiencing sensory overload may overreact to a situation by lashing out or underreact by shutting down.

Anyone can experience sensory overload, but it is most likely to affect people with:

ADHD is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of people in the United States. It is especially prevalent in children. This is in large part because their brains are still developing, and they have not fully learned how to handle the conflicting stimuli around them.

Although not all individuals with ADHD experience sensory overload, these conditions often co-occur. Common factors associated with ADHD that could increase the likelihood of sensory overload include:

  • difficulty self-regulating actions or emotions
  • hyperactivity or hyper-focus
  • impulsiveness
  • inability to concentrate or inattentiveness
  • overly intense response or lack of reaction to different stimuli
  • lack of awareness of one’s own environment

As sensory overload occurs when the brain becomes overwhelmed by the input it receives from the senses, these factors often lead directly to sensory overload.

Anything that stimulates one or more of the senses could trigger sensory overload, although triggers vary among individuals. Research into ADHD and sensory overload is still ongoing, but some of the most common triggers include:

  • Touch: A touch that is too light, firm, or sudden could lead to sensory overload. The same goes for unexpected physical contact, such as a spontaneous hug or a pat on the shoulder.
  • Texture: Certain food textures or scratchy, rough, or restrictive clothing could overwhelm the sense of touch. For some, even the feeling of water when swimming or showering could trigger a response.
  • Smell: Strong smells or odors could cause sensory overload. Scents that may not bother most people may be overwhelming to those with a heightened sense of smell. Possible culprits include artificial fragrances, perfumes, detergent, shampoo, and food.
  • Sight: Harsh or flashing lights may be a trigger for some people.
  • Sound: Many people with ADHD are hypersensitive to auditory stimulants such as multiple simultaneous conversations, loud music, fireworks, or grating noises. For these individuals, such sounds could result in a stress reaction.
  • Taste: Certain spices, strong flavors, or food temperatures can sometimes lead to sensory overload.

The symptoms of sensory overload in individuals with ADHD vary widely, so it may be difficult to recognize the signs at first. Depending on the person and situation, people may overreact, underreact, or react at inappropriate times. They may exhibit certain behaviors, such as a higher, or possibly lower, sensitivity to their surroundings.

ADHD makes it difficult for many people to regulate their emotions or actions, even in relation to things that may seem simple to other people. When people with ADHD become overstimulated, they may be unable to focus as environmental factors or sensations crowd their brains.

Moreover, people with ADHD and sensory overload may be unable to quickly “switch gears” in terms of the activity in which they are taking part. They may also find it challenging to register new stimuli or changes in their environment. This could lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed when something unexpected happens.

After encountering a trigger, some people with sensory overload cannot function properly until their senses normalize again. In extreme cases, they may experience a kind of physical pain, even from everyday things such as a light touch or being able to hear several ongoing conversations.

Research also suggests that children with ADHD have more difficulty than adults regulating their emotional responses and processing input from their senses. Common symptoms of sensory overload include:

  • trouble focusing
  • restlessness
  • anxiousness
  • extreme irritability
  • agitation
  • panic attacks
  • difficulty sleeping
  • avoidance of specific places, such as the kitchen or bathroom

About 15% of children have sensory processing difficulties. Those with ADHD or other neurodevelopmental disorders are more likely to exhibit signs of sensory overload than those without these conditions.

A child with sensory overload may react by throwing a temper tantrum, screaming, crying, kicking, or trying to hide. They may shield their eyes or ears to get away, or they may shut down completely for a time. This response is often due to their instinctive desire to protect themself from whatever is triggering their senses.

ADHD can be physically and emotionally exhausting, especially when sensory overload is involved. Although there is no cure, individuals with ADHD can lead a healthy, full life with the right treatment and management of the condition.

The following may help people with ADHD manage sensory overload and other symptoms:

  • Being proactive: It is a good idea to find out what is causing the sensory overload and implement ways to deal with it.
  • Watching out for triggers: Anything from a crowded theater to a series of flashing lights could overwhelm a person with ADHD. By identifying common triggers, it is possible to avoid them in the future.
  • Learning self-calming techniques: Meditation, deep breathing, and yoga are all ways to help reduce stress, promote relaxation, and minimize the risk of overreaction. For children, introducing sensory toys, a pet, or a security blanket may help redirect their focus.
  • Devising coping mechanisms: Anything from listening to a specific song to counting backward from 30 could help reduce the impact of sensory overload.
  • Establishing a routine: Some people create a “sensory diet.” This is a series of scheduled activities designed to help with the individual’s needs and prevent overwhelming them. People primarily use it with kids, but it can be effective for adults as well.
  • Consulting a primary care physician: A doctor may provide mental health resources, anti-anxiety medication, or antidepressants.
  • Creating a calm environment: It can be beneficial to eliminate known sensory triggers, such as certain types of lighting, coarse textures, or loud sounds.
  • Introducing new activities in the right way: For those who become stimulated by loud sounds, it is advisable to introduce new activities in a calm, slow manner. For those who need more stimulation, people can make something mundane seem more exciting or fun by incorporating music, dance, or another activity.
  • Exercise: Exercise can reduce pent-up energy or stress, thus reducing the likelihood of sensory overload.

People should also remember that although ADHD produces some challenging symptoms, it can also come with beneficial traits and characteristics. Learn more here.

Sensory overload can become more manageable with time, age, and practice. Some ways to lessen the impact of sensory overload include:

  • therapeutic options
  • prescription medication
  • coping tactics
  • mental health resources
  • self-care techniques
  • trigger identification and removal

With a consistent routine, the right treatments, and a proactive approach, ADHD sensory overload may be avoidable. In some cases, it may even be preventable.

Sensory overload happens when the information from at least one of the five senses overwhelms the brain’s ability to process it. Common reactions include extreme irritability, agitation, and a fight-or-flight response.

Individuals with ADHD or other neurodevelopmental conditions have a higher chance than other people of experiencing sensory overload or another sensory processing disorder.

Although ADHD is a lifelong condition, people with it can prevent and manage sensory overload with certain treatment techniques and the right support.