Those with ADHD are often hypersensitive to sound and touch. These sensitivities can increase as external stress and pressure on the person with ADHD increases.
Sometimes, people experience so much irritation from their clothing that the only solution is to change it. If you have ever experienced claustrophobia, that is the level of irritation a tactile (touch) sensitivity can cause.
Since these sensitivities can be greater at some times than other times, it is important for individuals with ADHD to have strategies in place before the sensitivities can escalate.
While many adults with ADHD struggle with time management and disorganization, a smaller portion also deal with hypersensitivity to sound or touch. In many cases, the more a person struggles with pressure or criticism related to time management, the more aggravated the sensory system becomes.
Sensory hypersensitivity (tactile and auditory) can limit a person’s ability to fully participate in work and social life. Sometimes the tactile system (sense of touch) is so sensitive that the person actually leaves work to change clothing that has become too scratchy and uncomfortable.
Some find it extremely difficult to wear clothing of non natural fibers or clothing with tags on the inside. The seam on the toe portion of a sock can be intolerable. Collars or sweaters that rub against the neck can be a source of great distraction.
Tolerance to clothing material can vary without warning. For example, you might be fine all morning, but then in the middle of the afternoon, suddenly find the texture of your shirt or blouse to be highly irritating and distracting. You may be unable to “filter out” the discomfort and your ability to concentrate diminishes.
In addition to hypersensitivity of the skin, people with ADHD may also be hypersensitive to sounds and tone of voices. Often, they are unable to process information when the tone of voice is inconsistent with their perception of the situation.
When adults (or children) are experiencing heightened sensitivity to the world around them, including their own clothing, they typically focus on the irritation itself. People will change clothing, cut tags out, buy specific types of socks to deal with tactile sensitivity (touch). They turn down the music or television in an attempt to lessen the auditory sensitivity (hearing).
These strategies help but are band-aids for the underlying issues. The trouble lies in the interaction of the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems (VPT) with one another and with the other sensory systems of the body (sight, smell, auditory and taste). The vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense are typically overlooked and underestimated. Frequently, they aren’t even something people know they have!
The vestibular system, the proprioceptive system, and the tactile system are the basis for a functional sensory-motor system. They are, in fact, the basis for a well-functioning human. Without these, we are at a loss to understand the world around us and we are at a loss to understand our ability to function in the world.
Here is a short overview of these three systems:
V – Vestibular system: Our ability to process gravity. This system is located primarily in the inner ear. It helps us balance.
P – Proprioceptive system: Our ability to detect the movement and actions of our joints through internal mechanisms. It provides direction, force and timing information to our muscles. For example, we do not need to look at our elbow to know if our elbow is straight or bent. This system is spread throughout the body, located in the joints and muscles. Any slight change in the muscles or the joints immediately sends information to the brain.
T – Tactile system: Our ability to process touch, including pressure sensitivity, as well as temperature sensitivity. While we tend to think of touch being limited to our fingers, in reality every inch of our skin makes up the tactile system.
Fortunately for those with sensory sensitivities, there are strategies that are quite effective at improving the function of the VPT system.
The first thing the adult with ADHD should try when experiencing irritation in any of their sensory systems is to begin a sensory diet. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve not eating food! However, it does involve engaging in specific activities on a regular schedule.
Lifting heavy things works on the proprioceptive system. The weight of the object causes pressure on the joints and muscles. This pressure is calming for the entire body. Heaving lifting can include pulling, carrying and pushing, in addition to actually lifting heavy things.
Heavy lifting can easily occur in the course of your day whether you are at work or home.
- Try the following ideas:
- Lift free weights
- Use a weighted ball (see in product section below)
- Carry a box of files (safely – this isn’t about straining your muscles)
- Wash windows
- Mop a floor
- Clean a shower
- Lift weights (nothing too heavy)
- Mow the grass
Build on these examples with your own ideas. The goal of heavy lifting is to apply pressure to your joints and muscles, not to hurt yourself by lifting too much weight.
Somewhat similar to heavy lifting in how it effects the proprioceptive system, deep pressure is very calming for the VPT system.
Deep pressure can include hugs (think bear hugs), a weighted blanket (check out the product section below), and massage. Massage is very good because it also has a positive effect on the tactile system (touch). If you can’t get a massage, try squeezing your arms and legs with your hands, or have someone help you. Squeezes involve wrapping both hands around an arm or leg and squeezing. Use the amount of pressure needed to press water out of a sponge sitting on the counter. Firm, but not painful. Work up or down the arm or leg, slowly squeezing and releasing.
Moving the Body
Movement of any kind helps the vestibular and proprioceptive system work together. Walking, jogging, and dancing are simple examples of movement. If you can incorporate deep breathing and rhythm into your movement it is even more effective. For example, you could walk briskly along, swinging your arms and taking long breaths in and out. Each time your foot hits the ground, you might count and swing your arms in time to your steps. “Breathe in and step: 1…2…3…4; and breathe out and step: 1…2…3…4”. Swimming and exercise classes like aerobics or spinning are also very good ways to move the body. (See the Infinity 8 Board in the product section for an option that is easy to use at home or work.)
Stimulating the vestibular system involves challenging your balance. One of the best ways to do this is to practice yoga. Another is to use an exercise ball not only for exercise, but also as a chair (see product section below). Additionally, spinning and swinging are very good ways to get vestibular input, though they aren’t as readily available to adults.
Tactile Perception Boosting Activities
Improving tactile sensitivity can involve any part of the skin, not just fingers and hands. The hands are the most common perception of how the sense of touch works and can include:
- Touching various textures – Some examples are gardening, cooking, playing in substances like shaving cream, and feeling different types of material (soft, nubby, rough, etc.)
- Sewing, knitting, or weaving
- Sculpting with clay
In addition to actually using your hands, other tactile activities could include a hot shower or bath, massage, and brushing the skin. A brushing program uses a soft brush (see product section below) to brush along the skin. Use varying degrees of pressure from very light to firm. Move the brush along your skin in the same direction your hair grows. You can also use different textures of material as an alternative to the brush in the brushing program.
Improving Auditory Reception
Auditory reception can be improved by listening to a variety of sounds. Try changing back and forth from different genres of music. Listen to podcasts or audio books of people talking. Vary the volume from high to low. In addition, it can be very effective to listen to nature sounds. This might be listening to the birds while you are on a walk. You could also listen to audio recordings of nature sounds. (Here is a nice example.)
(Recently, we have been looking at attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We have addressed the problems of disorganization, excuse making and time management. The suggested strategies are proven and simple enough to implement. Check out Part I and Part II.)