“Preliminary studies in children and adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) report both hypo-responsiveness and hyper-responsiveness to sensory stimuli, as well as problems modulating sensory input.”

– Panagiotidi et al 2018

Let’s Talk Sensory and ADHD

Living with ADHD comes with its unique set of challenges, including sensory regulation and sensitivity. Individuals with ADHD may experience heightened or diminished sensory responses, which can impact their daily lives. In my practice working daily with both children and adults with ADHD, I see sensory sensitivity as a significant piece of the ADHD puzzle. The impacts range from challenges with nutrition and foods, connection and relationship building, focus and attention, and navigating the sensory explosion of parenthood. In this blog post, we will look at some of the signs that sensory sensitivity is impacting an individual with ADHD and then we will explore practical strategies to support sensory regulation and navigate sensory sensitivity in ADHD.

Signs of Sensory Sensitivity and Sensory Processing Difficulties:

Avoiding or seeking physical touch: Individuals with ADHD may exhibit heightened sensitivity to touch or, conversely, have reduced sensitivity. Certain fabrics, textures, or clothing tags may be intensely uncomfortable or irritating. Behaviors may include avoiding physical contact or having a tendency to touch objects excessively.

neilson mahoney adhd coaching

Overwhelm from Visual Stimuli: Bright lights, visual clutter, or rapidly changing visual stimuli can be overwhelming. This can look like trouble focusing on a specific object or maintaining visual attention in visually stimulating environments. The movement and clutter that can be involved in managing a household with young children can be a challenge for parents that are navigating ADHD and sensory sensitivity.

neilson mahoney adhd coaching

Difficulties with Sensory Filtering: Individuals with ADHD may struggle with filtering out irrelevant sensory information. This can lead to difficulty prioritizing and attending to the most important sensory inputs. This looks like becoming easily distracted by background noise, movement, or visual stimuli that others may be able to filter out more effectively.

neilson mahoney adhd coaching

Sensitivity to Sounds and Smells: It is common with ADHD to describe having heightened sensitivity to sounds and smells. Certain noises or frequencies can be particularly distracting or irritating, such as background conversations, ticking clocks, or sudden loud sounds. The same goes for certain scents. Often kids with ADHD will describe themselves as super “smellers.”

Seeking Sensory Stimulation: Individuals with ADHD may engage in “stimming” or self-stimulatory behaviors to regulate sensory input. This can involve repetitive movements, sounds, or actions like fidgeting, rocking or swaying, hand or finger movements, chewing, biting, or blinking.

It’s important to note that these signs can vary from person to person, and individuals with ADHD may display a combination of sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors.

Understanding these tendencies is the first step in supporting sensory sensitivities. By identifying the source of dysregulation, overwhelm, or distraction, we can develop strategies to create environments that support sensory needs and overall well-being. Sometimes signs of sensory sensitivity like feeling overwhelmed by visual clutter, or avoiding certain foods aren’t always immediately associated as having a sensory component. The more we are aware of sensory challenges the better we are at providing support to ourselves and our families.

Practical Strategies for Sensory Regulation and Sensory Sensitivity

Now we will explore practical strategies to support sensory regulation and navigate sensory sensitivity in ADHD. Remember, if you are trying strategies and continuing to struggle or parenting a child that is continuing to struggle there are many amazing professionals that can help. An ADHD trained coach, counselor, or occupational therapist are all great options to seek out if you or your child is struggling.

neilson mahoney adhd coaching

1. Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment

Creating a sensory-friendly environment is crucial for individuals with ADHD to thrive. Consider the following tips:

  • Organize and Declutter: Clear away unnecessary visual distractions and organize belongings to create a calmer space. Minimize clutter and implement storage systems that help maintain a tidy environment. Remember that the ADHD brain doesn’t love visual clutter, but it also doesn’t like complex storage that is hard to access. Easy open organization like bins without lids is an awesome option, the stuff makes sense, but is easy to find.
  • Lighting and Sound: Adjust lighting levels by using softer or natural lighting. Reduce background noise whenever possible or provide noise-canceling headphones to create a quieter atmosphere. I always recommend choosing “warm white” choices as opposed to “bright white.”
neilson mahoney adhd coaching

2. Establish Sensory Breaks

Sensory breaks are essential for individuals with ADHD to reset and regulate their sensory system. Try incorporating some of these options.

  • Movement Breaks: Encourage physical activity and movement breaks throughout the day. Take short walks, engage in stretching exercises, or provide access to sensory tools like fidget toys or stress balls to help release excess energy and improve focus.
  • Quiet Spaces: Designate quiet areas where individuals can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed. These spaces should be calming, with comfortable seating and soothing elements like soft lighting or calming music. These are important for adults and children, having a calm retreat is a wonderful tool.

3. Sensory Diet Self-Care

A sensory diet is a plan of activities designed to help an individual meet sensory needs. The goal is to provide intentional input. Options could include:

  • Proprioceptive input through heavy work.
  • Vestibular input with spinning or swinging.
  • Tactile input with touch, texture, and temperature.
  • Auditory input by listening to music or nature sounds.
  • Visual input with calming images such as nature photos and videos.
  • Smell input with calming scents like lavender or personal favourites.
  • Taste input with different textures and flavours.
neilson mahoney adhd coaching

4. Self-Care

Daily nervous system support with self-care strategies and in the moment coping techniques help with the ability to move through intrusive sensory input.

  • Calming Techniques: Relaxation techniques such as breath work, mantras, and visualization can help both daily and in a moment of sensory overwhelm. A calm nervous system always has more capacity to manage the irritations and overwhelm that sensory input can bring.
  • Intentional Sensory: Adding pleasant sensory when overwhelmed by unpleasant sensory can support regulation.
neilson mahoney adhd coaching

5. Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy, conducted by trained professionals, can be beneficial for individuals with ADHD that are struggling with a significant impact from sensory sensitivity. This therapy focuses on improving sensory processing and integration through structured activities that gradually challenge the individual’s sensory system. Often an occupational therapy clinic is the best place to access this support.

6. Collaborate and Educate

Collaboration and education are key to creating a supportive environment for individuals with ADHD. Consider the following steps:

  • Open Communication: Foster open communication with teachers, caregivers, and healthcare professionals to ensure everyone is aware of the individual’s sensory needs and can provide appropriate support.
  • Educate Others: Educate those around you about sensory processing challenges in ADHD. Share information, resources, and strategies to promote understanding and empathy. This can and should include family members, especially for adults with ADHD.

Supporting sensory regulation and addressing sensory sensitivity in individuals with ADHD is vital for well-being and success. By creating sensory-friendly environments, incorporating sensory breaks and self-care practices, considering sensory integration therapy, and promoting collaboration and education, we can create a supportive and understanding community. Normalizing and supporting sensory needs is an essential tool in the ADHD support tool box.


Brown, C., & Tollefson, N. (2019). “Understanding Sensory Processing Challenges in Children with ADHD.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 73(3), 7303205020p1-7303205020p9. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2019.028142.

Panagiotidi, M., Overton, P. G., & Stafford, T. (2018). The relationship between ADHD traits and sensory sensitivity in the general population. Comprehensive psychiatry, 80, 179–185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.10.008

Subscribe for updates to Neilson Mahoney Coaching

Keep in touch and receive my bi-monthly newsletter with tips on topics ranging from ADHD, to anxiety, to meltdowns and tantrums, to parenting in the digital age.