Sensory Processing Disorder

“Please Don’t Hug Me! Seriously. And More Weird Things That Trigger My Hypersensitive ADHD”

Ever since I was a child, the sound of people chewing has filled me with a desperate rage. Ditto putting on makeup. And please don’t even think of hugging me. Did you think you were the only one with these hypersensitive ADHD quirks? You are not alone, you wonderfully strange human. Let’s not hug it out.

Irritated, hypersensitive woman with ADHD covering her ears to block chewing sounds
Irritated, hypersensitive woman with ADHD covering her ears to block chewing sounds

When you’re diagnosed with ADHD as an adult as I was, you have the benefit of looking back several decades, cataloging your challenges, and finally realizing that not everyone lives this way. I keep a running list of random things I thought everyone struggled with, but it turns out that isn’t the case.

Children and adults with ADHD notoriously hate waiting in line, are unable to focus on mundane details, and interrupt others constantly — but I struggle with the lesser-known challenge of hypersensitivity. Here are five everyday behaviors that cause sensory overload and drive me crazy, but that you might not have connected to ADHD.

Hypersensitivity, ADHD, and Me: My Top 5 Sensory Triggers

Keep in mind that not all people with ADHD struggle with these difficulties, but here are the sensory triggers I cannot tolerate:

Hypersensitivity #1: Hearing Someone Chew.

Ever since I was a child, the sound of people chewing has filled me with a desperate rage. I have distinct memories of sitting across the table from my mother eating crunchy onions while I was internally begging for a rogue asteroid to hit us both.

It’s a real thing, called misophonia — the dislike or even hatred of small, routine sounds, such as someone chewing, slurping, yawning, or breathing. It’s often an ADHD comorbidity. Similar to ADHD itself, misophonia is not something we can just get over if only we tried harder. It’s still a bit of a mystery disorder, but the most likely hypothesis is it’s essentially an auditory processing overreaction. The chewing or slurping causes a misophonic brain to freeze out all other sensory input: It is a nightmarish hyperfocus.

To this day, hearing my long-suffering spouse eat a juicy pear fills me with visceral loathing. Writing about hearing my spouse eat a pear fills me with visceral loathing. Don’t get me wrong: I love this man. As long as he’s not chewing.

[Could You Have Sensory Processing Disorder? Take This Self-Test]

Joking aside, this is why misophonia can be serious, even though it’s tempting to dismiss it as a silly quirk. People can lose their jobs and marriages over this. But knowledge is power: now that I know it’s a real thing, I’ve learned to leave the room when I feel it happening. If your child with ADHD tumbles into an unexplained rage or visible anxiety whenever you have dinner, try letting her leave the table. Yes, eating together can be a time to connect, but when one of the diners is wishing for an asteroid to hit the others, she’s not getting much bonding time from it anyway.

Hypersensitivity #2: Being Hugged.

I hate being hugged by 99 percent of people. Thankfully, the one percent consists of my husband and son. Some of my friends think this distaste for physical affection is because I grew up in Europe. It’s not but I let them think so, because “cultural aversion” sounds better than “neuro-biological disorder aversion.”

Whether it be sound or touch, several items on this list come down to sensory processing. There are some studies about sensory processing issues in children with ADHD, but not much is known about the exact relationship between the two. We do know that people with ADHD have a higher incidence of sensory processing disorder. Whatever the cause, do not force a child with ADHD to hug anyone. Come to think of it, do not force a child without ADHD to hug anyone. Let’s all just mind our own bodies. You might love embracing, but I don’t, and both are OK. We’re just humans trying to do our best. Doesn’t that acceptance feel good? Great. Let’s not hug it out.

Hypersensitivity #3: Putting on Makeup.

Foundation is sold with phrases like “seamless blending” and “smooth application.” I am waiting for one that claims to “apply itself,” because that’s what I need most. Blending and applying require patience and focus, both of which are in short supply around here. No matter how smooth the foundation, it’ll be streaked across my chin. No matter how lengthening or waterproof the mascara, I will stab myself in the eye with the brush. An actual cat could do a better job creating a cat-eye than I can.

Messing up one’s makeup is not, of course, a comorbidity. It’s just another consequence of the pathological impatience and lack of focus. I’ve seen those Instagram posts where a kind individual talks you through flawless makeup application, and all I can think is: There’s not enough Adderall in the world for me to accomplish this. Those people must not have ADHD – or they do, and makeup is the thing that brings them that blissed hyperfocus we’re all chasing. Either way: Hats off to the makeup people. And please don’t look at me too closely when you see me.

Hypersensitivity #4: Watching TV.

When I tell people I never watch TV, they often respond with reverence because they assume I am doing more intellectual things. True, if you consider mindlessly scrolling Instagram while pacing the upstairs hallway an intellectual activity. The truth is: I can’t sit still for TV. I used to be able to do this, but I no longer can. Nope, not even for high-visual, high-drama shows like Game of Thrones. My brain will enter hyperfocus for several things, but dragons and R-rated tête-à-têtes don’t do it anymore. Trust me, I wish they still did.

[Get This Free Download: Are Your Senses in Overdrive?]

I’ve noticed that people view this as a positive side effect of ADHD. Compared to some of the other consequences of the condition, that is true. I would like to sometimes watch a show with my husband and son, though. It’d also be nice to be able to engage in conversation with friends when someone inevitably says, “Have you seen such-and-such show?” Usually, I shake my head and say, “Not yet! I’ll have to put it on my list.” Just between us: that’s a lie. There is no list. I won’t be watching it, because I can’t.

Hypersensitivity #5: Getting Angry at My Clothing.

When I am having a bad ADHD day, I become enraged by my clothing, usually around 4 or 5 PM. I get especially angry at my pants. The fabric doesn’t matter, nor does the size, cut, or color. It’s just the pants having the audacity to be pants on me. I have ripped off clothing and thrown it into the trash in a fit of rage. Luckily never in public.

Research shows that the level of tactile sensitivity is higher in women with ADHD than in men with ADHD. This sensory over-responsivity in ADHD is associated with anxiety as well, and if you live with this, you didn’t need a study to tell you that.

There is no magic fix, but your child is not “just trying to be difficult” when he rejects shirt after shirt as you’re trying to get out the door on time in the morning. I often said that phrase to my own kid before I knew any of this, even as I had the exact same issues. (Clearly, I don’t suffer from a hyperactive insight system.) I feel guilt over this, but to quote the inimitable Oprah Winfrey: “When you know better, you do better.”

For now, the only fix I can offer is, first and foremost, to show empathy – to your kid and to yourself. Find an article of clothing that works and buy the crap out of it. Ride the trend of environmental-sustainability-gone-chic and wear the same shirt every day if it’s the only thing that works.

Does any of this sound familiar? I know we can be frustrating to live with. As with most perplexing ADHD behaviors, empathy is key. Sometimes you just have to hug the person (assuming #2 does not apply) and say: I love you just the way you are, you wonderfully-strange human. ADHD hypersensitivity or not, isn’t that what we all crave most?

[Read This Next: “I’m a Sensitive Woman”: Sensory Overload in Adults with ADHD]

13 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thank you for sharing this.
    My coworkers have come to understand (most).
    A clicking pen, tapping, candy wrappers, and the list goes on. I am a substance abuse counselor in a prison. I teach groups two to four hours a day. Mind you, many of my clients have ADHD, as well. When I ask them to find a quieter way to fidget I am often met with resistance. There could be a riot and if someone is clicking a pen that will be the ONLY thing I can hear. Then there are clients that do it intentionally to get a reaction. Thankfully, once I explain it to them a glance at them will stop it.
    I am very picky about the clothes I wear. I like soft and comfy. And there are days I want to rip my bra of an hour into my day.
    Thank you for sharing this. Before I heard of it I thought I was just being mean. It is good to know that it’s just the way I am wired.

  2. Yes!

    The first photo of me as an infant is in a stiff, frilly, fancy white dress and I’m bright red and screaming, no doubt because of the scratchy 1950s fabric. I can’t wear long-sleeved tops without rolling up the sleeves because I can’t stand having fabric against my wrists. Same with fingers, so I can’t wear rings, including my wedding ring. No pantyhose since the early 1980s because of the discomfort.

    In my workplace a co-worker munches and chomps loudly on goldfish crackers three feet away and a student support tutor in our shared library space has a loud, grating voice and a braying laugh. She talks and laughs animatedly and non-stop to students. Her normal volume almost qualifies as shouting. All of this is enraging to me but doesn’t bother anyone else so it’s hard to get much sympathy. It’s one of the reasons I’m retiring early.

    I have a long list of Amazon Prime programs on my watch list, but months go by before I turn on the TV, for the reasons you mention. I watched two movies in 2019, I think. It’s getting worse with age, as you mentioned. I don’t understand why.

  3. Okay. This is so bizarre. I’ve been diagnosed for just under 2 years, and I am still uncovering weird bits of education and shared behaviors with people that I never guessed was linked to ADHD. The chewing thing has been an awful part of my life and childhood. And then when you said the clothes…OMG…it’s not just me!!! Thank you for writting

  4. Hahaha!!! Pear slurping… HATE IT!
    And breathing, forget it.
    I also cannot sit still long enough to watch TV, I don’t even own a TV. And no one wants to watch TV with me because if I am able to stay seated, I am not able to refrain from constantly commenting. I always think I am guest starring in an episode of Mystery Science Theater. (Best show ever) Then, of course, I laugh at my own jokes. Yeah, people don’t like being interrupted when they sit trance-like in front of the TV, and I can’t understand how they aren’t bored to tears!

  5. Yup, chewing and yawning will do It for me. My roommate will do the biggest, most animal-like yawns within mere seconds of one another. It’s like did you forget to breathe or something? I’m not even kidding at this point. There’s no normal physical explanation for it. Not to mention he’s the loudest chewer I know, too, probably because he sounds like a mouth-breather.

  6. Ah, yes, so familiar. As an Asperger’s (diagnosed at the tender age of 64), I am always learning new things about myself and this peculiarity. For me, it’s clocks that tick noticeably. Cannot have them in the house because I can hear them from the other end of the house. I put up with social hugs if I have to, but can do without physical contact, period. And whatever you do, never even bump my foot. That enrages me instantly. Yet, I love to have my feet tickled or rubbed. That goes for my back and other body parts, too. But only for so long, which I never know but my body will tell me when the relaxing touch is worn out. That is clearly a neurological response. Open-mouthed chewing is a horrid distraction. My father was an open-mouther at the dinner table, and chewed up little green onions like a wood chipper. Then my mother would get on him, because she couldn’t stand it either. Looking back, I recall many nuances in my mother’s behavior that were similar to what I experienced and continue to experience. So, definitely a genetic component.

  7. Learning about these thing have been one AHA! moment after the other.

    Hating being hugged/physical contact is a problem for me. I felt relieved when I found out why this was a problem for me. I now feel I can tell people I prefer not being touched without feeling like I´m insulting them.

    And the thing about make up: not only do I not have the patience for it but I also don´t like how it feels on my skin. Have yet to find a foundation that does not make me feel incredibly uncomfortable.

  8. All these years, I thought I was just weird! I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but no one ever told me until I was in my mid to late 30’s. I can’t stand to hear people breathe. My husband’s breathing will actually wake me up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep until I get him to roll into a position where I can’t hear him breathing. And I can’t stand to be touched. Can. Not. Stand. It. The only people I can stand to be touched by are my kids (which is probably why it took over 7 years of marriage for my husband and I to have kids). And I hate putting on makeup. I can’t stand the feel of anything on my face except mascara (and I’m extremely picky about the brand, type of wand, etc.) and lipstick or chapstick. Foundations make me feel like I want to claw my own skin off, and I’ve tried dozens of brands and types. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this. In all my conversations with doctors and therapists about my ADHD, these “quirks” of mine never came up so I never knew they are most likely a apart of life with ADHD. Thank you for this excellent article!

  9. Snoring does it for me and my boyfriend is a horrible snorer. I’ve had to get out of bed and leave the room because I wanted to punch him in the face. Earplugs are necessary for me to be able to even tolerate being in the same room at night and I can still hear him and it drives me nuts. I can’t wear socks with toe seams and sometimes I drive myself into an anxiety attack because I can’t find anything to wear that I don’t want to rip off before I have it all of the way on. I can’t handle wearing wet or damp clothing and I hate air blowing on my skin unless it’s really hot outside.
    The list goes on and on. Life is definitely not easy being like this and most people can’t comprehend what it’s like and think that we’re just overly dramatic and need to just get over it. Yeah, right.
    Luckily, after 10 years together, my boyfriend is a lot more understanding than he used to be. Unfortunately, he still snores.

  10. Another of my triggers is whistling. I could jump out of the moving car when my husband whistles along to a song. Diagnosed ADHD as an adult and explains a lot of things from my childhood. I can’t have the seam on socks either! When I was a kid I’d say “it doesn’t feeeeeel right!” And my dad would have to make sure the seam was straight, how can anyone stand that?! Chewing is like nails on a chalkboard. The clocks ticking. If anyone tries to rub my arms softly my skin crawls and I get so aggravated, even still.

  11. Agree with all of these. As for watching tv, I either watch on my iPad while doing chores like laundry or cleaning the kitchen (somehow it makes my brain happy enough that I could deep clean the entire kitchen if I’m watching a show I really like), or I do some stretching, yoga moves and light exercises while watching tv with my family. Or, you can take up knitting, beading, jewelry making, crosswords etc. just so your hands and mind stay a baseline of busy.

  12. Every one of them but the tv part. I only watching on streaming services because there is no going back on a regular show. If I get bored with the dialogue for a moment I will look at my phone or leave the room only to realize I missed something and have to go back. But since I’ve already seen it I miss it again. Watching with my son is nearly unbearable for him because i have to press pause at least 10 times an episode to point out plot holes and ridiculous character development. Am I the Only one who thinks they should consult me about every episode of every show? haha

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