Sensory Overload In Adults

Sensory Overload In Adults
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Many readers are interested in the following topic: What to know about sensory overload. We are happy to note, that our authors have already studied the modern research about the topic you are interested in. Based on the information provided in the latest medical digests, modern research and surveys, we provide extensive answer. Keep reading to find out more.

Have you ever been irritated by an itchy tag, or annoyed by someone chewing loudly? Maybe you’ve been unable to ignore these feelings once you notice them. That gives you a small glimpse into the experience of people with sensory overload, also called a sensory processing disorder.

Sensory Overload and ADHD: What to Know

Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who has covered health topics for more than 10 years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.

Published on January 12, 2022

Keri Peterson, MD, is board-certified in internal medicine and operates a private practice, Age Well, in New York City.

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Have you ever been irritated by an itchy tag, or annoyed by someone chewing loudly? Maybe you’ve been unable to ignore these feelings once you notice them. That gives you a small glimpse into the experience of people with sensory overload, also called a sensory processing disorder.

Sensory processing disorder can make it difficult for people to function if they become overwhelmed by senses including touch or hearing. The condition is known to be closely related to autism, but research shows that sensory overload and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also go hand in hand.

This article will review the reasons why people with ADHD are prone to sensory overload, triggers, and how to cope.

Overwhelmed child

ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects about 11% of school-aged kids. ADHD can cause symptoms such as trouble sitting still, difficulty paying attention, or impulsive behavior. An estimated two-thirds of kids with ADHD continue to experience symptoms as adults.

Research has shown that children with ADHD have trouble processing sensory stimulation from the outside world. Kids with ADHD tend to be over-responsive to such stimulation, such as bright lights, strong smells, loud sounds, or certain physical sensations, which can cause them to experience sensory overload.

A few of the symptoms of ADHD can make sensory overload worse, and result in a sensory processing disorder.

  • Lack of self-regulation: People with ADHD often struggle to regulate their emotions or reactions. Because of that, a sensation that is a minor irritation to neurotypical people can result in an outburst for people with ADHD.
  • Trouble with transitions: People with ADHD often struggle with transitions, which is also known as trouble with flexible thinking. This can cause people to fixate on an uncomfortable situation and have trouble turning their attention elsewhere.
  • Lack of awareness: People with ADHD are sometimes distracted, disorganized or rushed. This can lead to sensory overload when they encounter a sensation they don’t like—like an itchy coat—but are unable to remedy it quickly.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

Some people with sensory processing disorder underreact to sense stimuli, which can cause them to seek out more intense forms of stimulation. But more commonly, particularly in people with ADHD, this disorder causes hyper-sensitivity to sensory information. This can present differently among individuals, but some common symptoms include:

  • Picky eating habits, particularly avoiding foods with textures that the person finds unpleasant
  • Trouble settling down after activities
  • Sensitivity to smells or sounds
  • Dislike of certain fabrics, clothing items, or shoes
  • Discomfort with certain movements, like swinging or riding an elevator

These symptoms might seem minor, but they can be severe enough to interfere with a person’s day-to-day functioning. In severe cases, sensory overload can lead to nutritional deficiencies or missing school, so it’s important to address the symptoms.

Causes of Overstimulation in People With ADHD

People with sensory processing disorder can be overwhelmed by any of the five senses that most people are familiar with: touch, taste, sound, sight, or smell. They can also have trouble processing or be easily overwhelmed by other senses, including vestibular senses (head movements), proprioception (muscle and joint movement), and interception (internal bodily sensations such as hunger, thirst, or feeling cold).

People with ADHD are more likely to be overwhelmed by sensory input from any of these areas than people without ADHD. Common triggers of overstimulation in people with ADHD include:


The texture of certain foods, fabrics or body washes can overwhelm people with ADHD. This is one of the most common sensory overloads for kids with ADHD, and girls may be particularly at risk.


The way that certain clothes or shoes fit can be frustrating and overwhelming, particularly for kids. Others might experience overwhelm from bed sheets or car seats.


Some people with ADHD are sensitive to certain tastes, although food aversions are more commonly cause by textures.


Loud noises like a fire alarm or even subtle noises like someone chewing can cause stress.


People with a sensory processing disorder might be especially sensitive to smells, even those that are meant to be pleasant, like perfume or cooking food.


Visual clutter can provide too much stimulation.

Treating and Managing Sensory Overload in ADHD

ADHD is treated with a combination of medications and behavioral interventions. Treatment for sensory overload can be integrated into this protocol.

The best treatment for a sensory processing disorder is sensory integration therapy, which can be incorporated into physical or occupational therapy. Under this therapy, a person is exposed to sensory stimuli and learns how to respond appropriately.

If you’re trying to address sensory processing and ADHD for yourself or your child, try these steps:

  • Speak with your healthcare provider. Sensory overload is common in kids with ADHD, and your healthcare provider might have strategies to suggest.
  • Identify triggers. Keep a diary to help identify the triggers or things that overwhelm your child. Where reasonable, avoid these.
  • Learn self-soothing techniques. Help your child learn how to calm themselves once they’ve become overwhelmed. This can be difficult for people with ADHD, so you might need to work with an experienced therapist.
  • Follow a routine. A routine can help with predictability and mitigate ADHD symptoms like disorganization and trouble with transitions, giving more resources to cope with ADHD.
  • Practice regulation. Find the tricks—like exercise, meditation, or painting—that help you or your child regulate their reactions and sensory input.


Many people are aware of the connection between sensory processing disorder and autism, but fewer people know that sensory overload and ADHD often occur together. Sensory processing isn’t just a quirk of people with ADHD: it’s a real condition, rooted in brain differences. Speak with your healthcare provider and therapists about interventions that can help with sensory overload.

A Word From Verywell

Sensory overload can make it difficult for people with ADHD to get through their daily routines. Sensory overload can also be frustrating, whether you’re the person experiencing it or a parent or caregiver trying to help a child cope.

Remember that people with sensory overload and ADHD aren’t trying to be difficult—they’re experiencing a very real symptom of their condition. Talk with your healthcare provider and experiment with sensory integration therapy and other interventions that can help you or your child better regulate and respond to sensory information.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does sensory overload feel like in ADHD?

When a person with ADHD experiences sensory overload, they can become so fixated on a certain sensation, they’re often unable to turn their attention away from the stimuli or focus on other tasks. This can make it difficult to meet expectations at school or work.

What does ADHD overstimulation look like?

People who are experiencing sensory overstimulation from ADHD might be unable to focus on anything other than the sensation. They may be irritable, frustrated, or upset because the sensation is unpleasant to them. In some cases, people might pull at their shirt, block their ears or take other steps to try to stop the sensation.

Can sensory issues be a symptom of ADHD?

Sensory issues and sensory processing disorders are prevalent in people with ADHD. Although scientists are still researching the exact correlation, research has shown that kids and adults with ADHD are more likely than neurotypical people to experience sensory overload.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
  2. Lane SJ, Reynolds S. Sensory over-responsivity as an added dimension in ADHD. Front Integr Neurosci. 2019;13:40. doi:10.3389/fnint.2019.00040
  3. ADHD and sensory overload.
  4. University of Michigan Health. Sensory processing disorder.
  5. STAR Institute. Understanding sensory processing disorder.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.

What to know about sensory overload

Sensory overload is the overstimulation of one or more of the body’s five senses. These are touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste.

Though sensory overload can affect anyone, it commonly occurs in autistic people, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder, and certain other conditions.

Keep reading to learn more about sensory overload, including its symptoms, causes, and potential treatments.

anxious woman in a restaurant with sensory overload

Sensory overload happens when one or more of the body’s five senses become overwhelmed. It can happen, for example, in a crowded restaurant, when the radio is too loud, or when a passerby is wearing a strongly scented perfume.

In these situations, the brain receives too much information to be able to process it properly. Sensory overload leads to feelings of discomfort that range from mild to intense.

Everyone experiences sensory overload at some point in their lives. Some children and adults, however, experience it regularly. For these individuals, everyday situations can be challenging.

For them, going to the school or office cafeteria can lead to sensory overload. The sounds of people talking loudly, strong smells of food, and flickering fluorescent lights can all trigger feelings of being overwhelmed and uncomfortable.

What sensory overload feels like can vary from one person to another. Some people may be more sensitive to sound, for example, while others may have issues with different textures.

  • inability to ignore loud sounds, strong smells, or other types of sensory input
  • a sense of discomfort
  • anxiety and fear
  • extreme sensitivity to clothing or other textures
  • feeling overwhelmed or agitated
  • irritability
  • loss of focus
  • restlessness
  • stress
  • insomnia

In children, the following signs can indicate sensory overload:

  • anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
  • avoiding specific places or situations
  • closing the eyes
  • covering the face
  • crying
  • placing the hands over the ears
  • the inability to converse with others or connect with them
  • running away from specific places or situations

Sensory overload occurs when the brain struggles to interpret, prioritize, or otherwise process sensory inputs. It then communicates to the body that it is time to escape these sensory inputs. This message causes feelings of discomfort and panic.

In some people who experience sensory overload regularly, such as those with a sensory processing disorder, there may be a biological basis for these processing problems.

One study indicates that children with sensory processing disorder have quantifiable differences in their brain structure. The researchers suggest that this points to a biological basis for sensory processing problems.

However, not everyone who experiences sensory overload will have these structural differences.

Sensory overload in children occurs fairly commonly. A 2018 report states that 1 in every 6 children has sensory processing difficulties. In certain groups, the prevalence ranges from 80% to 100%. These groups include children with:

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Down syndrome

Sensory overload in children can be difficult to recognize, especially if there is no co-occurring condition.

Parents and caregivers may attribute the symptoms to “bad behavior” because it can cause children to run away from situations, have a meltdown that results in a tantrum, or appear irritable and restless.

In children who do not have a related condition, sensory overload may simply occur because the brain is still developing.

Parents and caregivers should learn to recognize both the triggers and the signs and symptoms of sensory overload in children. Swift action can reduce the impact on the child and help manage their reactions.

Conditions that have an association with sensory overload include:


Sensory overload and autism can sometimes go hand in hand. This is because autistic people commonly perceive sensory input differently.

When an autistic person becomes overwhelmed from sensory overload, they may experience a meltdown. This may involve crying and shouting, running away, or not responding to stimuli from the environment.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added sensitivity to sensory input to the list of diagnostic criteria for autism.


Sensory overload and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also go together. In people with ADHD, sensory inputs compete for attention in the brain, which may trigger sensory overload., a nonprofit organization, suggests that certain types of sensory information, such as the texture of food or sensation of clothing, are more likely to cause sensory overload in those with ADHD.


People experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can become hypersensitive to their surroundings, which can lead to sensory overload. This means that sensory overload and PTSD can often co-exist. People who have PTSD have usually experienced one or more traumatic events. The sensory overload usually occurs in response to certain triggers that remind the person of this trauma.

Sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that occurs when a person finds it difficult to respond to sensory input. Generally, there are two different types of the condition.

Hypersensitivity is when a person is overly sensitive to things like smells, sounds, tastes, or textures. A person may try to avoid these sensory experiences because they are too overwhelming.

Hyposensitivity, which is also known as sensory seeking, is when a person looks for more sensory stimulation, especially physical touch or pressure.

Some people can have a mix of both types, and both children and adults can have SPD. However, doctors more commonly diagnose children with SPD than adults.

Other conditions

People with some other conditions may be more likely to experience sensory overload than the general population. These other conditions include:

  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • fibromyalgia
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Tourette’s syndrome

As sensory overload is not an official disorder, it is not possible to get a formal diagnosis.

However, many doctors and healthcare professionals recognize sensory overload, especially in autistic people and those who have ADHD and other related conditions.

Before speaking to a doctor about sensory overload, it can be helpful for a person to keep a diary of any sensory overload signs, symptoms, and triggers.

Triggers can include specific stimuli, such as loud sounds and bright lights, as well as mental and physical factors such as depression and dehydration.

The doctor will probably ask several questions about the triggers and events surrounding episodes of sensory overload. In doing this, they hope to understand more fully how a person experiences sensory overload.

A doctor may refer a child with suspected sensory overload to a developmental pediatrician or an occupational therapist for further evaluation and treatment.

There is no specific treatment for sensory overload. Generally, the aim is to help people dealing with sensory overloads be able to plan for them and manage their reactions.

Occupational therapy may be helpful for children who experience sensory overload. Occupational therapists can help people make changes to their environment to minimize the frequency or severity of sensory overload.

Medications for co-occurring conditions may also reduce sensory overload.

In autistic people, for example, the medication aripiprazole (Abilify) may be helpful.

Many people can manage episodes of sensory overload with specific techniques and home care. Individuals can try:

  • keeping a diary of signs, symptoms, and triggers of sensory overload
  • avoiding the triggers of sensory overloads, such as loud concerts or events with flashing lights, where possible
  • asking others to help reduce sensory inputs, such as by turning down bright lights or opening a window when strong smells are present
  • identifying safe spaces to escape to when a sensory overload occurs at school, work, or other venues
  • staying near the exit when at a concert or party so that it is easy to leave if necessary
  • talking to teachers, colleagues, friends, and others about sensory overload and asking for their support in reducing sensory inputs
  • taking regular breaks, and getting enough rest and sleep
  • drinking lots of water and eating a balanced diet


When it comes to children with sensory overload, parents and caregivers can :

  • help their child avoid triggering situations
  • give the child the words to explain what is happening and how it feels
  • validate the child’s feelings and experiences
  • inform teachers of the possibility of sensory overload and ask for their support
  • seek help from a doctor, occupational therapist, or another specialist

Sensory overload can happen to anyone, but it is more common in autistic people and people with ADHD, PTSD, and certain other conditions.

It causes feelings of discomfort and being overwhelmed. Moving away from sources of sensory input, such as loud sounds or strong smells, can reduce these feelings.

People who experience regular episodes of sensory overload should see their doctor. A doctor can provide support and recommend treatments or management techniques. They can also determine whether there is a co-occurring condition that requires treatment.

Last medically reviewed on August 9, 2021

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