ADHD / Anxiety / Coping Strategies

ADHD and Sensory Issues: Light, Sound, Smell, Touch, Torture

Soooo, quick re-cap: There’s ADHD, there’s sensory processing disorder, and then there’s the simple fact that many of us with ADHD also have “sensory issues”, and yes, these may all overlap somehow in ways we don’t fully understand yet. ADHD is Attention Deficit Disorder, a title that refers to the fact that those of us bearing the diagnosis have difficulty making choices about where and how our attention is used or directed. There’s a wide range of how this effects people, academically, and practically speaking. Academically there are those who struggle from the beginning of their schooling, and there are those with multiple university degrees, and everything in between, each with their own particular challenges.  In our personal lives, challenges present themselves in another broad spectrum of inhibitions as we stumble through the details of daily living. We make everything from taking out the garbage to maintaining healthy adult relationships look like some kind of reality show challenge where even though one person may win, they look like a complete asshole by the end of the show.

I’m not personally familiar with the challenges of sensory processing disorder so I’ll defer to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation for a definition.

And then there’s those of us who have ADHD and sensory issues. To illustrate:

1) I once turned down an apartment that I was offered, in an area where it was difficult to get an apartment, because it was not possible to disconnect the light from the bathroom fan: When the light was turned on, the fan went on automatically. I cannot tolerate the grinding, unending sound of a bathroom fan. Cannot. Will. Lose. My. Shit. Any grinding, repetitive, unending sound qualifies for this category. Even small ones. I hear them.

2) I spent most of my childhood obsessed with how my shoes were tied. They could not be too loose. They could not be too tight. This drove my parents insane. Good thing I was pretty handy at tying my own shoes. These days I usually seem to be able to tell my mind to shut the heck up when it goes there. If not…well…I retie my shoes so my feet are comfortable. Slips ons are GREAT. No war of the laces.

3) Overhead lighting throws me into internal panic/migraine/sick feeling in pit of stomach/complete inability to concentrate mode like nothing else. At work, I have to either have my own office, or office mates willing to understand that it’s not an option for me, and who willing to work with desk or area lamps on. I’ll tell you right now that this is the kind of thing that people really don’t understand. Day after day I’ve had people walk into offices of my past, flipping the light on because I must have “forgotten” to turn them on. Nope, just happy and productive here in the dark, thanks. Or…the time I had a passive-aggressive office mate who generally worked in the dark and expressed a preference for such…until I mentioned my issue with overhead light. Thereafter, he would have histrionics about how he just couldn’t see, and needed the light on, complete with lots of huffing and puffing and drama. He was the number two reason I left that job and don’t regret it.

4) I have sudden, inexplicable reactions to noise in my environment. A too-loud television or radio might suddenly have me scrambling quite desperately for the remote.

5) Then there’s not liking how your clothes feel on your skin (I have certain fabrics that I WILL NOT WEAR) or always noticing when there’s something on your fingertips (in a way that probably doesn’t bother most people) and on and on, but for me, the biggies these days are light and sound, and happily, I’m able to control these issues in my environment most of the time (which makes it easier to “deal” the rest of the time).

It is a fact that if you do not look like you have a physical disability, many people think it’s extremely odd when you have these kinds of issues. I’m not condoning that thinking from any angle, or condemning most humans as jerks — just observing that many people have narrow and uninformed perceptions of what “disability” or “impairment” means. I’m well past the point of apologizing for my quirks (though I do try to not make them other people’s problem, as much as possible) but I wish more people were past the point of being judgmental about other people’s quirks.

From the inside, the best description I am able to give to all of these sensations, in my experience, is that it feels like the room is screaming at me, and in no casual manner. It feels like it is right there at the end of my nose, provoking a reaction that I cannot ignore within myself, because it pricks me in the primitive parts. I feel fear, panic. It wells up in my gut faster than I can adjust  — I stand on the street corner, fingers in ears,  working extremely hard not to make a socially unacceptable facial reaction, and telling myself not to run, as an ambulance or fire truck screams past me.

ADHD stimulant medication makes a HUGE difference for me in my sensory experience of the world around me. I am far less reactive, far less pricked, or piqued or harassed by ANY sensory overstimulation with my meds, it’s like turning a volume dial to a lower setting, and as a result, my general anxiety lowers as well, which has all kinds of beneficial effects. I know when the meds are wearing off because the dial slowly turns right back up. This is one of the reasons that I get really pissed off by the thoughtless and ignorant discounting of medications as “all bad”. They are not all bad. In fact, they have improved my life to a degree that I never could have imagined if I’d not tried them.

These sensory issues are one of the most defining factors of my ADHD experience.

I feel like I had a point in here somewhere…yes, something beyond the point I just made…

OH YES. All of this brings me to the present, where I have consciously decided that I will tailor my life to what works for me. My workplaces are all low-light and comfortable to me (and shared spaces are mostly lit in a way that works for everyone). I wear headphones to shut out other sounds and to stimulate my brain with sound of my choosing (music) to help me focus. I have certain fabrics and textures that I simply will not wear anymore.

What are your experiences with sensory issues, ADHD-related, or otherwise? How do you accommodate them?


13 thoughts on “ADHD and Sensory Issues: Light, Sound, Smell, Touch, Torture

  1. Hi Katy, My daughter has ADHD but mainly has Dyspraxia which has a sensory over load just like you are describing. Occupational and physiotherapies, greatly helped with this when she was 5 years, and has continued to help as she grows. I to have ADHD and find sometimes there are too many noises going off and find a way to shut the noise out, so I can focus. I to have found music in my ears has helped me focus. We all find our own way to manage these disorders in the end.
    All the best Lisa

  2. I’m working on getting things to work for me.. Kind of a way to figure out.
    Clothes need to fit right, and certain fabrics annoy me. Dry skin irritates me, it itches. I don’t think normal people have uncomfortable hair days. I need to block out sounds too sometimes, but silence can be overwhelming.
    I need to have my ‘system’ in place to accommodate my chaotic mind.

    • I guess there’s a lot of us “mixed diagnosis” types out there, eh? 🙂 I am cracking up about your uncomfortable hair day, not because I’m laughing at you, but because I understand what it’s like to have these kind of funky random things that you notice, that indeed, others may never notice. Sometimes I get frustrated because I feel multiple parts of my skin are “talking” to me at once, haha, all itchy and irritated. It’s where distractions come WAY in handy, I can sometimes distract my way out of it (play with my iPhone, listen to music). That’s why I have always assumed that it’s an ADHD thing (and maybe it is), because I can sometimes ignore the sensory stuff if my brain is occupied in another way – sometimes not, and I have to act on my environment to make it stop (turn off the lights, take out my ponytail holder, adjust my clothes, put my headphones on). Funny creatures, humans!

  3. I have ADHD, but judging by your style of communication, I have a feeling that you dwell on your “condition” rather than trying to annihilate it. Many people despise background noises, are startled by loud noises and have lighting preferences. I could easily say that I’m “incapable of working” in yellow light or dull lighting – yet I make the effort. I can’t expect every employer to switch the lighting system for me or my colleague to turn off his desk fan just because I “can’t deal with repetitive noises”. There are others around us, and we must make a reasonable effort to adjust and be considerate.

    I have a feeling that you use your condition as an excuse, and as a tool to get everyone to adjust to You.

    Instead of reinforcing those neuro-pathways that create ADD, try to rewire and change attitudes towards things that bother you or hinder your abilities to function.

    Or did ADHD become an essential and almost welcome part of your life – a constant excuse, an eccentricity, a topic of conversation, etc. – that would leave an emptiness should it be nearly gone? Answer this question honestly, at least to yourself – and than you can make a decision to improve or spiral downwards.

    • In the event that you’re not a troll, I’m approving this comment. I don’t write a blog with the expectation that people agree with me. My About page addresses the “why” of why I do choose to write about ADHD so I don’t really need to elaborate on that here. One of the things that I do work to express through my writing is that one person’s solution to life’s mysteries may not be appropriate to everyone else. Apparently you don’t share that philosophy. I think that my writing speaks for itself and…if that’s your takeaway…then so be it 🙂 If you’ve got life’s mysteries so thoroughly solved, however, I’m surprised that you waste your clearly superior time reading other people’s blogs about ADHD. Perhaps insulting and provoking other people is your way to self-stimulate. That might be something YOU…might want to think over.

      • Belle, you apparently are not “sensory defensive,” that is overstimulation doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, scream, or punch the person who just bumped into you. However, there are people who do feel just that. It’s a knee jerk gut reaction because your brain is screaming “Danger! Get me out of here” and therefore, as with Katy, not something you can just ignore, tune out,
        and merrily go back to work. If you wish to learn more about sensory defensiveness, read my book, “Too Loud, too Bright, too Fast, too Tight, What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world” or go to my website,

  4. I have recently found my self disconnecting the bathroom fan from the hotel where we stay when we go on my husbands bussiness trips. At home the fan must be on or i cant stand being in the bathroom. But at the hotel…i find myself disconnecting the fan. I find nit interesting that i know what you are talking about. My son has adhd and i am not diagnosed. However not being diagnosed for the past 25 years i have been able to adjust and live my life without too much struggle. Although i can look back and see the complications of sensory issues and ocd. I remember throwing tantrums because crayons were dull or broken not sharp and new…yet i broke them and dulled them out. My shoes, i would race to put them on because i felt that one shoe would feel sad if the other on first. I felt empathetic for the toilet paper if it was left tangling. I often catch my self frustrated with my hair, and its appearance yet control myself because i know adults should not throw tantrums. As a child i could not wear tight clothes like jeans and to this day my hair has to be in a ponytail because i hate bad hair days my hair is hard to ma and style and cant be directly in my face. I hadnt thought much of it until now that i read this blog and that my son has spd and adhd symptoms.

    • That is interesting, Pamela. Well, it is true that ADHD tends to have a genetic component. In my own extended family, there are many people who would easily qualify for a diagnosis (even a few adults who might qualify under the child guidelines…talk about peppy!). Compared to several of those family members, I was a much less classic candidate for an ADHD diagnosis. I approached the topic as an adult in the middle of grad school, because I realized I was a hindrance to myself, not necessarily to others (although in retrospect…there were things I was doing that impacted others, lol…a little embarrassing in hindsight). I’m not saying that you have ADHD, I’m not a doctor of any kind, just that you wouldn’t be the first person to wonder, in your situation 🙂

  5. in true form, “I have no idea where to start…typical of my scrambled up mind and days it seem recently. 57 year old and finally figured out that some of my life long quirks after all these years, once my now 25 year old daughter was diagnosed with ADD, OCD, GAD around 12 years old….were exactly the same as hers.
    Reading your blog, had me going yup, me too a few times too many!! Tonight I struggled in particular to post a short giveaway blog, photo, and a few lines that were copied from another blog. Do you think that I could pull it together?? Nope, from 6.30 to 9.30 pm plodded away, why so long…well, laptop equals multiple visual distraction.finally figured out that I get 3 different kinds of notifications on Facebook, red thing on top of page, scrolling distracting news feed..and of course the ever annoying pop up down on the left corner, when someone responds to something that I have either written or commented to…and of course I just have to open the window to check what they said…yikes!!.

    never mind the scurrying around of my partner all over the house, doing mundane household chores that will have me crawling in my chair, so LOUD!! that nearly drove me nuts. The sound of his bare feet swooshing along the hardwood floor will drive me bonkers, have to reign in my, WILL YOU PUT YOUR SLIPPERS ON..please… Ever kind of noise to over stimulate my brain!!
    Talk about wanting to scream!! Yep, sure understand that one..I need dead silence to get anything done that requires me to think..or now a days, to make a decision…

    Sensory stimulation?? Try getting to sleep, why is it every little crumb find its way under my hip, or wrinkle in the sheet is right where I am lying..I also have Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, and touch, feeling and skin crawling are so common there days!! An arm on my shoulder feels like a ton of bricks!! The label from tops I wear, get either ripped out, or the shirt get yanked off and tossed aside for another!!

    OF course its now 3.30 am..and as per usual..I am not in bed being distracted yet again by wandering about on the web!!

    Any thoughts about how over stimulation the WWW can be to a ADD person that cannot focus to start with, I am online daily for hours, trying to share info with others….lol!!

    I think living with myself is a huge pain in the XXX!! My daughter and I are so similar, and really scary is the fact that her 5 year old daughter exhibit now all the signs of all the same disorders we have ..GD, another one to go through this turmoil!! !!

    • Sorry it took me so long to respond to these great comments – I must have checked my email from bed, half-awake, that day 😉

      It sure is hard to pull things together sometimes. And when my brain is not feeling it, it is NOT feeling it! I can relate to that, big time!


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