Managing Hypersensitivities in Adults with ADHD

Patient Expert

Last week, I wrote a Share Post on how to help manage your ADHD child's hypersensitivity. As little as there is written about that subject, even less is known about adults with ADHD and hypersensitivities. It makes perfect sense that a child who is tormented with sensory issues (also known as sensory defensiveness) will grow up to be an adult who is also challenged in this area. Though many kids do seem to outgrow some of them, many do not. And these adults often feel silly, immature and thus embarrassed about how difficult life is for them, dealing with hypersensitivities to sound, touch, smell and the like.

In fact, when I lecture at local and national conferences, I always mention how people need to be aware of this invisible condition, often seen with ADHD, because it typically affects them in nearly all aspects of their lives.

Just like children who are troubled by sensory issues, adults also commonly complain of:

  • Skin irritation and discomfort from certain fabrics such as wool and synthetics (panty hose are common offenders for women; neckties for men).
  • Hypersensitivity to being touched too lightly or conversely, too intensely.
  • Clothes not fitting "just right"- and needing to wear loosely fitting garments. Many hate wearing shoes and prefer going barefoot whenever possible, while others hate the sensation of carpet, wood or sand and must always wear shoes to feel comfortable.
  • Being able to hear and smell things others can't. Many complain of hearing the humming of electric appliances or florescent lights
  • Feeling irritated hearing people eat
  • Rooms being too bright or too dark
  • Feeling overwhelmed where there is a lot of visual and audio distractions, such as malls, movies, concerts
  • Hating certain foods or food textures

What You Can Df bothered by sounds, try:

  • White noise machines at work, while studying, or to help you fall asleep
  • Wearing headphones with soothing music or purchase noise cancelling headphones
  • Earplugs
  • Arriving to work early or staying later, when there is less noise
  • Placing padding under electric appliances, like refrigerators, washer/dryers, etc.
  • Carpeting the house
  • Taking short breaks in a darkened room

If bothered by tactile sensations such as fabrics or physical touch, try:

  • Wearing natural fabrics that breathe, like cotton and silk. Don't feel forced to follow fashion trends if it will make you irritated and uncomfortable. Once you find a clothing brand you are comfortable wearing, buy multiple items but in different colors.
  • Avoiding clothes that are too binding. Many are more comfortable with loose fitting clothes, though some adults do prefer snug fitting apparel, which can offer a calming effect.
  • Wrapping yourself tight in your blanket(s). Many find this soothing and an easier way to fall asleep.
  • Many adults are over reactive to certain types of touch, especially if they come by surprise. Hugging and being too close to one's personal space can be overwhelming. Explain to people how you are affected, ie tell your partner what you need during physical intimacy. Don't expect him/her to automatically know what your needs are. If hugging friends and family feels too uncomfortable, explain your sensory issues and come up with other ways to express feelings (ie handshakes, pat on back, high five, etc.). Many find light touch and tickling excruciating. Explain your needs and suggest alternative ways to express physical closeness.
  • Finding seamless socks, tagless tops

If bothered by visual over stimulation, try:

  • Sunglasses
  • Low brimmed caps or hats
  • Avoiding places that overwhelm you, or when that's impossible, limiting your time at such places.
  • Finding "safe" places where you can retreat to when overwhelmed.
  • Replace florescent lights with full-spectrum lighting.

If bothered by food textures or other oral sensitivities, try:

  • Using a child sized toothbrush
  • Making your dental appointments later in the day. Dental related gagging is often worse in the morning.
  • If you're a picky eater, stop apologizing or fighting it. Simply find alternative choices, or avoid offending foods altogether and supplement your diet with vitamins. If food textures are bothersome, get creative Try pureeing vegetables and adding to soups, for example.
  • Chewing gum- it is often calming to the nerves

If bothered by smells and odors, try:

  • Perfume-free detergents, deodorants, cleaning products, etc.
  • Using scents at home and at work that calm you. For example, boiling cinnamon, using oils or incense, etc.
  • Purchasing houseplants to improve air quality indoors
  • Nose plugs!

In general:** Don't feel that you have to** force yourself to fit in to an environment that spits out daily assaults on your senses. Work around it, using strategies that work. Try to fit in daily:

  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Down time
  • Warm baths... to help sooth your central nervous system.

Also, consider consulting with an OT (Occupational Therapist) who can help develop a sensory diet especially for you.


Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World, by Sharon Heller: