Updated: Jul 10
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are distinct but often overlapping conditions affecting many children. Sensory processing refers to how the nervous system receives and interprets sensory information from the environment. Sensory processing challenges can result in hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input, affecting a child's behaviour, mood, and ability to function effectively.
ADHD symptoms may look similar to SPD as there is an overlap
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing information received through the senses. This can lead to over or under sensitivity to sensory input and can impact a child’s ability to function in daily life. ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child's ability to pay attention, focus, and control their behavior. While these two conditions are separate, however there is a high rate of misdiagnosis of SPD as ADHD.
Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) can often exhibit symptoms similar to those of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Unfortunately, this similarity can lead to misdiagnosis of SPD as ADHD. In this blog, we will discuss the differences between SPD and ADHD, how SPD can be misdiagnosed as ADHD, and why it is essential for parents and healthcare providers to understand these differences.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological condition that affects how a person processes sensory information. It is estimated that up to 1 in 20 children may have SPD, but many cases go undiagnosed. SPD can present itself in many ways and be difficult to diagnose. Some of the common symptoms of SPD include:
Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensory input
Difficulty processing information received through the senses (e.g. touch, sound, taste, sight, smell)
Poor coordination and motor skills
Difficulty with transitions and changes in routine
Anxiety and meltdowns in response to sensory overload
What is ADHD?
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to focus, pay attention, and control their behavior. Children with ADHD may have trouble following directions, completing tasks, and sitting still.
The three types of ADHD are:
Inattentive type: difficulty with attention, organization, and follow-through
Hyperactive-impulsive type: difficulty with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and risk-taking behavior
Combined type: a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms
Similarities and Differences between SPD and ADHD
SPD and ADHD share some similarities, making it difficult to differentiate between the two conditions. Both can impact a child’s ability to function in daily life and can lead to behavioural issues. However, there are also some key differences between SPD and ADHD.
One of the main differences is that SPD is primarily a sensory disorder, while ADHD is primarily an attention disorder. Children with SPD may have difficulty processing sensory input, leading to over or under-sensitivity to stimuli. In contrast, children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention, completing tasks, and controlling their behaviour.
Another difference is that children with SPD may have more specific sensory issues, such as disliking certain textures or sounds. In contrast, children with ADHD tend to have more generalised attention and behavioural issues.
Reasons for Misdiagnosis
Despite these differences, there is a high rate of misdiagnosis of SPD as ADHD. There are several reasons for this.
SPD is not yet officially recognized as a separate diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This means that many healthcare providers may not be familiar with the condition or may not consider it as a possibility when evaluating a child.
Another reason is that the symptoms of SPD and ADHD can overlap. For example, a child with SPD may have difficulty sitting still in class, which can lead to a diagnosis of ADHD. Similarly, a child with ADHD may have difficulty processing sensory input, which can lead to a misdiagnosis of SPD.
The Importance of Accurate Diagnosis
Accurate diagnosis is important for both SPD and ADHD. Children may not receive the appropriate treatment and support they need to manage their symptoms without a proper diagnosis.
Finally, some children may have both SPD and ADHD, which can make it difficult to differentiate between the two conditions.
Strategies for Managing Sensory Challenges in ADHD
Managing sensory challenges in ADHD can help reduce the impact of sensory challenges on a child's behaviour and mood. Here are some strategies that can help:
Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory integration therapy is a form of occupational therapy that uses sensory input to improve a child's ability to process and respond to sensory stimuli. Sensory integration therapy can include brushing, swinging, or bouncing on a therapy ball.
Environmental modifications can help reduce sensory challenges in a child's environment. For example, providing noise-cancelling headphones or creating a quiet workspace can help reduce distractions for a child who is sensitive to sound.
Exercise and Physical Activity
Exercise and physical activity can help regulate sensory processing and reduce the impact of sensory challenges. Exercise can include activities such as yoga, swimming, or running.
Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help reduce the impact of sensory challenges on a child's behaviour and mood. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce feelings of anxiety and promote relaxation.
Sensory challenges can significantly impact ADHD symptoms, affecting behaviour, mood, and social interaction. However, by using a combination of sensory integration therapy, environmental modifications, exercise, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques, children with ADHD can manage sensory challenges effectively. If you suspect your child has sensory processing challenges, seeking an evaluation from a qualified healthcare provider is essential to ensure they receive the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.