Symptoms of ADHD Part 1: Sensory Processing Patterns

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also commonly known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects various parts of the brain, but specifically the prefrontal cortex. The three primary symptoms that are mostly attributed to a formal ADHD diagnosis include impulsivity, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity, all of which are fairly broad symptoms that can be observed on a spectrum and across multiple contexts, one context being that of sensory issues. While sensory processing disorder is common among ASDs (autism spectrum disorders), it should also be noted that persons with ADHD can experience it as well. Furthermore, it should be noted that SPD is not a stand-alone disorder according to the DSM-V. It must be congruent with another disorder like autism, ADHD, or BPD and others.

ADHD is a disorder that affects many aspects of a person’s childhood developmental process, having detrimental affects on the person even long into adulthood. Primarily thought if as a childhood hyperness behavioral disorder, many children slip through the cracks of identification, leaving them without a diagnosis and intervention. It is well documented that children with ADHD, especially those without a formal diagnosis, receive 20,000 more negative messages from parents, family members, peers, and supervising adults in a year than neurotypically developed children. At its core, ADHD is a disorder that causes major deficits in seemingly ordinary processes and creates a neurodivergent brain. While there is hope for recovvery, many people with ADHD, especially those who missed early diagnosis, learn coping strategies, both detrimental and effective, to maneuver in society. However, there are quite a few problems that even the most well-adjusted person with ADHD may endure–mental health issues, like depression, anxiety and other disorders like BPD, bipolar disorder, OCD, and others. In today’s article, I am writing specifically about sensory issues, which seems to be quite a talking point among the ADHD and ASD (autism spectrum disorder) communities.

According to Gupta (2009), a wide range of processes are affected by the disorder in early childhood development. “Typical development of attentional processes is rapid during early childhood. ADHD results in impairment in response inhibition, error monitoring, attentional disengagement, executive attention, and delay aversion and may effect the ongoing development of these processes during childhood,” (p. 2). Another aspect affected during early childhood includes the sensory processing patterns.

According to Dunn’s (1997) model of sensory patterns, there are four likely patterns. Sensory processing is a person’s ability to notice the stimuli and sensory events that occur around them in everyday life; sensory processing patterns are essential and grant people the ability to respond to their environments accordingly. According to Dunn (1997), there are particular processing patterns for sensory events and these patterns affect the way in which each person may respond to certain sensory stimuli. “…people who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more intense reactions than their peers, which may be one of the contributing factors to their differences in responding in particular situations,” (Dunn, 2016, p. 135). This intention reaction can also be noted of people with ADHD. While the reactions may not be outwardly intense, the feelings of frustrations can cause emotional reactions, breakdowns, and even outbursts.

Dunn writes that every person misses sensory cues, has sensory needs, and has within themselves sensory processing patterns. Dunn continues to write, “When you find yourself in a situation in which you cannot get your sensory needs met (either by increasing input or by decreasing it), you may become more irritable or unhappy,” (2016, p. 135). Dunn’s specifically identified patterns explain how these events work together. These four patterns can be summed up into patterns of seeking, registration, sensitivity, and avoiding. Persons with ADHD may find themself repeatedly experiencing one or even all of the patterns depending upon the context.

How are sensory patterns formed? According to Dunn, as the brain develops and interacts with the world, it creates maps that are formed from this information stemming from somatosensory, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems, all of which help the brains process and store information through the senses. For persons with ADHD, these maps also include glitches, which may lead to sensory overload or sensory underwhelm. “The brain holds maps that are formed from this information, and these maps guide us so we are oriented in space and time and can make accurate decisions about how to react in particular situations,” (Dunn, 2016, p. 135). These patterns of seeking, registration, sensitivity, and avoiding can explain certain outward behaviors of all people, but specifically those with autism and ADHD.

Seeking is defined as reflecting high thresholds of sensory and includes active self-regulation. “Children who seek more than their peers add movement, touch, sound, and visual stimuli to every life event. Seekers make noises, fidget in their seats, touch everything, feel objects, touch and hang on others, or chew on things,” (Buron & Wolfberg, 2016, p. 137). Additionally, children with seeking sensory processing patterns may not be as aware of danger and lack caution in play, seem excitable, and engage in impulsive behavior. They do these things and behave in these ways in an attempt to seek more sensory input, as their threshold is very high. These behaviors are noticed in wandering, which is a common behavior of children with autism and ADHD.

Registration also reflects higher thresholds, but includes passive self-regulation. According to Dunn’s model, these children with the sensory registration patterns may not seem to be aware of what is going on or may seem very laid back or even rather dull. According to Buron and Wolfberg, these children may also seem withdrawn, self-absorbed, and even difficult to engage. They are more flexible with and easily adapt to change, or the change does not seem to bother them. They can be easily exhausted or appear apathetic when in reality, these persons simply are not detecting input that others may notice more regularly. In order to engage these students in learning atmospheres, the activities should be highly salient in order to grasp their attention.

Sensitivity sensory processing patterns typically cause the person or children to have low thresholds and may also cause them to engage in passive self-regulation strategies. According to Dunn’s model, these persons with this particular sensory processing pattern tend to notice and detect more details than other people. “…therefore, [they] may be very discerning about school supplies; for example, these students notice differences in paper quality or writing utensils. They may also be hyperactive, distracted, and easily upset because they notice more things than their peers,” (Dunn, 1997). Students with this processing pattern may also find themselves easily distracted and unable to complete their work in school as easily as their peers. “They also have difficulty learning from their experiences because routines are disrupted so often that they cannot complete tasks and learn,” (Buron & Wolfberg, 2016, p. 138).

Avoiding is the final pattern that Dunn (1997) discusses. “Avoiding reflects low thresholds and active self-regulation according to Dunn’s model. Children in this group actively work to reduce input, which means they are quite routinized. They seem resistant and unwilling to participate in activities, particularly unfamiliar ones,” (Buron & Wolfberg, 2016, p. 138). These students, in particular, experience discomfort quickly. In order to avoid feeling this discomfort, they withdraw, thus decreasing their participation. These students may seem controlling or stubborn, but ultimately they are struggling with anxiety constantly. They also may seem inattentive to certain stimuli, while being overly attentive to others. All of these behaviors are simply patterns of sensory processing, even though the behaviors come across as self-absorption. “The self-absorption is related to the vigilance required to keep control over possible ‘assaults’ from unfamiliar sensory inputs,” (Buron & Wolfberg, 2016, p. 135).

Whichever sensory patterns seem to affect the person with ADHD depends on the person and the extent of the glitches, so to speak, of the maps. Understanding that your loved one with ADHD is struggling with the information their brain is receiving hopefully enlightens you, and them, to understand that these reactions and behaviors might not only be caused by sensory processing issues, but they do not define the person negatively. Through therapy of all kinds, medication, and a lot of grace, there is hope in coping with the sensory issues of ADHD.

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Buron, K. D., & Wolfberg, P. (Eds.). (2014). Learners on the autism spectrum: Preparing highly qualified educators and related practitioners (2nd ed.). Lenexa, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing. ISBN: 9781937473945.

Gupta, R.& Kar, B. R. (2009). Development of attentional processes in normal andADHD children.Progress in Brain Research, 176,259-276.

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