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Understanding ADHD and Sensory Processing: A Comprehensive Guide

One lesser-known but significant aspect of ADHD is its impact on sensory processing. Sensory processing refers to how the brain interprets and responds to sensory information from the environment. Due to differences in brain structures, individuals with ADHD often experience sensory processing issues, which can affect their daily lives in various ways. This article explores the relationship between ADHD and sensory processing, highlighting the challenges and potential strategies for managing these issues.


The Connection Between ADHD and Sensory Processing

Sensory processing involves the nervous system receiving messages from the senses (such as sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) and responding appropriately. In individuals with ADHD, the sensory processing system can be either over-responsive or under-responsive, leading to difficulties in managing sensory information.


Over-Responsiveness

Over-responsiveness, also known as sensory hypersensitivity, means that the person may find specific sensory inputs overwhelming or distressing. For example:

- Sound Sensitivity: Everyday noises, such as a ticking clock or background chatter, can be distracting or even painful.

- Touch Sensitivity: Certain textures, clothing tags, or light touches might be uncomfortable or irritating.

- Visual Sensitivity: Bright lights or busy environments can cause discomfort or difficulty focusing.

- Oral Sensitivity: Particular textures, temperatures or flavours in food can be overwhelming or disgusting.

- Movement Sensitivity: Motion sickness could be caused by transport and gentler actions like being on a swing or being pushed in at the table.

- Internal Sensitivity: Tolerating the physical sensations accompanying emotions may be unbearable and exhausting.


Under-Responsiveness

Under-responsiveness, or sensory hyposensitivity, means that the individual might not register sensory input adequately, leading to a need for more intense stimulation to achieve a normal response. For instance:

- Sound: The person may seek out loud environments or play music at high volumes.

- Touch: They might engage in activities that provide strong tactile input, like rough play or heavy lifting.

- Movement: Individuals might crave constant motion and seem to be in perpetual motion to satisfy their sensory needs.

- Oral: Seeking out strong flavours in each of the different tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami.

- Sound: Listening to music or the TV at top volume.

- Internal: Recognising the sensations of hunger, thirst, or the need to go to the toilet may be extremely difficult.


The Impact of Sensory Processing Issues on Individuals with ADHD

Sensory processing issues can exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD, making it even more challenging for individuals to concentrate, stay organized, and manage their behaviours. Some specific impacts include:


- Difficulty in School: Sensory distractions can make it difficult for students with ADHD to focus on lessons, complete assignments, or follow instructions.

- Social Challenges: Sensory sensitivities may lead to social withdrawal or conflicts with peers who do not understand their sensory needs.

- Daily Living: Sensory processing issues can make everyday activities such as dressing, eating, or grooming overwhelming.


Strategies for Managing Sensory Processing Issues in ADHD

Fortunately, several strategies can help manage sensory processing issues in individuals with ADHD. These strategies often involve creating a supportive environment and incorporating sensory-friendly practices into daily routines.


Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment

- Modify the Physical Environment: Give your child the tools they need to manage their environment. For sensory avoiders, this might mean clutter-free spaces, noise-cancelling headphones, soft lighting options, food options, sensory-friendly clothing, etc. For sensory seekers, this might mean background music (or music on headphones), bright lights, crunchy food, wobble cushions, weighted blankets etc.

- Provide Sensory Breaks: Allow regular breaks during which the individual can meet their sensory needs to calm or stimulate themselves. This might look like a calming corner with quiet music and soft lighting, or it might look like climbing a tree.


Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy, conducted by occupational therapists, can help individuals with ADHD better process sensory information. This therapy involves activities designed to help the brain respond more effectively to sensory input. Techniques may include swinging, jumping, or using weighted vests to improve sensory processing skills.


Behavioural Strategies

- Routine and Structure: Establishing a predictable routine can help reduce sensory-related anxiety and improve focus by allowing your child to know when they will be faced with different expectations and when they will have the freedom to meet their sensory needs.

- Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Teaching mindfulness, yoga, or relaxation techniques can help individuals manage sensory overload and reduce stress.


Understanding the connection between ADHD and sensory processing is crucial for providing effective support to individuals affected by these issues. By recognizing the sensory processing challenges that often accompany ADHD and implementing strategies to address them, caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals can significantly improve the quality of life for those with ADHD. Sensory-friendly environments, targeted therapies, and behavioural strategies all play a role in helping individuals with ADHD navigate their sensory world more comfortably and effectively.

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