ADHD and Sensory Overstimulation

As a teacher who works with students with ADHD, I’ve seen many students experience strong emotional reactions to environmental stimuli. They find certain noises, smells, flashing lights, and fabrics incredibly irritating. This type of reaction is often diagnosed as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). While it can be difficult to tell the difference between ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder, studies suggest that up to 40% of children who have ADHD also have SPD.

Psychologist and ADHD coach Michele Novotni, Ph.D., describes the link between ADHD and hypersensitivity this way:

She sees higher levels of physical sensitivities and emotional reactivity in her ADHD clients than in the general population… Novotni suggests that it is her ADHD clients’ feeling overwhelmed that leads to their hypersensitive reactions.

How can we help our students with ADHD manage sensory overstimulation? Zoë Kessler, author and journalist who specializes in adult ADHD, suggests several helpful strategies. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below:

Step back – Allow yourself your emotional reaction to a situation, but accept that there are other possibilities. Calm down, analyze the situation, and rethink it; pause for reflection.

Block it out — To avoid sensory overload and anxiety, always have earplugs and a headset with you to block out noise.

Make sure you’ve had enough sleep — If not, take a nap, before facing a situation that will be highly stimulating.

Practice mindfulness — Meditate, pray, or use another relaxation method to strengthen your ability to cope with day-to-day challenges.

Have you noticed any link between ADHD, SPD, and your students? What coping strategies do your students like to use? Let us know in the comments.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager