ADVICE: ADHD or Sensory Processing Issues?

Understanding the similarities and differences
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Constantly on the go. Difficulty focusing. Touches everything. Impulsive. Difficulty following directions. Most of us know a child (or have a child) with some of these tendencies.


These children are often believed to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. These same characteristics, however, can also describe a child who is seeking out or is sensitive to sensory stimuli. We hear a lot about ADHD, but less about the sensory system and sensory processing. Let’s define both.


ADHD. ADHD is not an attention deficit issue, but an attention regulation issue. When children with ADHD are faced with tasks that they consider boring or uninteresting, they find it difficult to pay attention. Children with ADHD are often not unfocused, but are multi- or hyper-focused and can have difficulty shifting their focus from one task to another. ADHD is a disorder of executive function. Impairments in executive function impact a child’s working memory, self-control, and ability to think flexibly.


Children with ADHD may:


  • Struggle with organization and both initiating and completing tasks
  • Seem to daydream
  • Have difficulty sitting still during quiet activities
  • Have difficulty following directions
  • Lack impulse control making them prone to meltdowns
  • Play too rough


Sensory processing. Sensory processing entails taking in information from our eight senses, filtering, processing, and acting on that information in an appropriate manner. In my article “Why Is my Kid Doing That?” I wrote about the “sensory cups” and compared our children’s sensory system to cups of coffee. Some of us need quite a few cups of coffee to focus and get the day’s tasks completed. Others can drink just one cup and become jittery and unable to focus. In the same way, some of our children need a lot of sensory input to be able to focus, while others can become over-stimulated by too much sensory stimulation. To complicate matters, our children can vary from day to day and the amount of sensory stimulation they tolerate can vary between senses.


Children who require a lot of sensory input are considered under-sensitive to sensory input, while children who get over-stimulated easily are considered oversensitive to sensory input.


A child who is under sensitive to sensory stimuli may:


  • Crave movement
  • Have difficulty focusing
  • Touch everything
  • Seek out messy play
  • Play too rough
  • Have difficulty understanding personal space
  • Have difficulty following verbal directions


A child who is oversensitive to sensory stimuli may:


  • Have trouble focusing and filtering out distractions
  • Notice sounds and smells that others do not
  • Be sensitive to touch, textures, and the feel of different clothing
  • Have difficulty with changes in routine or transition times
  • Wiggle, finding it difficult to get comfortable
  • Exhibit fears or anxiety


The behaviors seen in ADHD and sensory processing issues are similar, but the reason behind the behaviors is different. It’s so important to understand the “why,” because as many as 50% of children thought to have ADHD actually have sensory processing deficits. As many of 40% of children with ADHD have sensory processing deficits in addition to ADHD.


Talk to your pediatrician or an occupational therapist about your child’s behaviors, when you notice them, and what tends to help, and take note of what has been happening in their environment prior to the onset of the behavior.


CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.