Is it ADHD, or Is Your Child Just Sensitive?

A mother reads to her highly sensitive child

Due to overlapping characteristics of ADHD and high sensitivity — like getting overstimulated easily — it can be difficult to tell them apart.

When my daughter was 13 years old, her therapist recommended that she have a neuropsychological evaluation. She’d been irritable, having academic difficulties, and anger outbursts.

She received a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and her therapist was concerned with possible dissociative episodes. In other words, that she’d disconnect from reality.

From the evaluation, I didn’t expect to learn that my daughter had Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She didn’t show signs of being hyperactive or having trouble sitting still. She could sit for hours and read a book, fully engulfed in the story. 

The doctor went on to explain that she had ADHD Inattentive Type. Those with this type have a high inattentive symptom, such as disorganization and distractibility, but do not often show hyperactive-impulsive behaviors (like being fidgety or not being able to sit still). So both boys and girls can “seem” very quiet and focused — even if their brain is in full-blown ADHD mode on the inside. 

Some ADHD Traits Overlap With High Sensitivity — And Vice-Versa

There are many stigmas about the different ways kids learn and interact, and it can feel like your child doesn’t fit in when they struggle to focus or are easily overwhelmed by their surroundings.

While around 9 percent of children have ADHD, many children do not. Instead, they are born with different wiring that makes them sensitive to their home or school environments, as well as to other settings, too. These children often exhibit a wide range of behaviors that can be difficult for parents and teachers to understand. So a child may be a highly sensitive child (HSC) and not have ADHD, even if it appears they have ADHD.

This is because an HSC’s nervous system absorbs more information from their surroundings than the average child’s nervous system. This can make them feel overwhelmed by their environment — whether that environment is a noisy classroom, loud family dinner, or large group of people. 

As a result, while some children are merely highly sensitive, others may end up being diagnosed with ADHD. However, the two can also overlap.

Regardless of whether a child receives a diagnosis, it is important to know how to understand and support your child’s needs. But first, let’s look at each in more detail.

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The Science Behind Highly Sensitive Children

Everyone is sensitive to some point, but some are more sensitive than others. Approximately 30 percent of people are born more sensitive than average, both physically and emotionally. (While around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity, 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And, not to worry — all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered healthy and normal.

Children (and adults) who are near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are referred to as highly sensitive people, or HSPs. They tend to be deeply in touch with their physical environment, as well as to the emotions of others — they will experience them as their own. They’ll also pick up on subtle details others may overlook, or make connections between ideas that other people may not. Highly sensitive children will usually be affected by textures, noises, and other environmental factors that other kids seem to shrug off. Often, they are highly creative and empathetic, and many are highly intuitive and deep thinkers. Some researchers also believe that high sensitivity is linked to giftedness.

If your child is highly sensitive, they were likely born that way and developed it further in early childhood. They will be sensitive for life — however, as they develop, they can learn how to better manage overwhelm and overstimulation, regulate their strong emotions, and use their powerful sensitive mind to their advantage.

As a parent to a highly sensitive child, the best thing you can do is teach them to accept and validate their sensitivity, as well as help them understand why they experience things so differently from their non-sensitive peers.

Being sensitive can be positive in many ways, yet it can also be a challenge for both parents and children, particularly when they don’t understand why they feel things more strongly than others. Before we talk about the intersection between high sensitivity and ADHD, let’s look more at the characteristics of ADHD.

What Is ADHD?

If you’re the parent of an easily overstimulated child, you’ve probably wondered at one time or another whether your child has ADHD.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition. It is characterized by difficulty paying attention and sitting still, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. The symptoms of ADHD typically appear before the age of seven; however, they can emerge at any time during childhood or adolescence.

There are three types of ADHD:

  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  • Predominantly inattentive 
  • Combined type

ADHD children are typically inattentive and impulsive at school, at home, and when among friends. They usually have difficulty listening to teachers in their classes or following instructions at home. Often, they misplace items (like toys and homework) and lose their temper quickly. These kids tend to be very active in an “overactive” way — fidgeting in their seats, squirming, moving non-stop — making them appear distracted, even when they’re trying hard to pay attention.

ADHD has many positive aspects to it, as well. ADHD children are often super energetic, enthusiastic, and excited about life. Their high energy makes them an enjoyable person to spend time with! They have a unique perspective on life and may approach tasks and situations with a thoughtful eye that encourages creativity and invention.        

Experts are not exactly sure why, but boys are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than girls. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, boys are more than twice as likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than girls.

Children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often diagnosed because they’re distracted and unable to focus. However, it may be that their real problem is overstimulation — being around too many people, noise, or stimuli.

Some common signs of ADHD Inattentive Type, the kind my daughter has, are:

  • Daydreams and becomes easily distracted
  • Misses important details or makes careless mistakes on homework and tests
  • Gets bored quickly and has a hard time staying focused
  • Has trouble getting organized (for example, losing homework assignments or keeping the bedroom messy and cluttered)
  • Doesn’t seem to listen when spoken to
  • Avoids tasks that require a lot of focus
  • Often loses track of things
  • Is forgetful in day-to-day activities
  • Has trouble following instructions and often shifts from task to task without finishing anything  

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After my daughter’s diagnosis, my husband and I received various treatment recommendations. This included working with the school to create a 504 plan (a customized educational plan) to address her tendency toward inattention, anxiety symptoms, and classroom accommodations in hopes of decreasing stimulation.

It was a confusing time for all of us, as our daughter was a bright child that scored average (or above average) in cognitive, academic, and executive functioning. What did this new diagnosis mean? 

A few years later, I did a lot of research and realized that my daughter was, and is, a highly sensitive child. I had so many questions going through my head. Does my daughter experience ADHD because she is an HSC, or does she have ADHD, or could it be both? Nowhere in our 12-page neuropsychological document did “highly sensitive child” or “sensory processing sensitivity” appear. 

How ADHD Overlaps With High Sensitivity

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and being an HSC (Highly Sensitive Child) are different childhood challenges that can look very much alike, making it hard to pinpoint the exact cause of your child’s difficulties.

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is no longer a medical diagnosis, but “ADD” is often used to refer to Predominantly Inattentive Type ADHD and its associated symptoms. Predominantly Inattentive Type ADHD (formerly ADD) does not present in the same way as the other two types of ADHD I mentioned above, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type ADHD and Combined Type ADHD.

The first step in determining whether your child has ADHD or if they’re a highly sensitive child is to understand what these two conditions are.

According to Dr. Elain Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child, “in many ways, the two are opposites — those with ADHD appear to have the genes, behavior, and symptom criteria for the diagnosis of someone tending to be impulsive and unable to be affected by consequences that are even bad for them. On the other end, HSPs tend to ‘pause to check’ before acting, our depth of processing in action, and, thus, are highly conscientious. But again, there are three possibilities: It’s HS and not ADD, ADHD and not HS, or both.”

If you’re a parent whose child has been diagnosed with ADHD, I encourage you to ask yourself if your child might be a highly sensitive child instead.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does your child struggle more with their emotions than most kids their age? 
  • Do they experience stronger feelings and react more strongly to things around them? 
  • Do they become overwhelmed more quickly and need more time to recover from those episodes?

ADHD and being an HSC are both very real. If you’re having a hard time determining the underlying cause of your child’s challenges, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are they frustrated by the things that seem easy for others?
  • Do they have difficulty concentrating when there’s too much going on around them?
  • Do they feel overwhelmed by many of the activities and demands of daily life?
  • Are they easily startled by loud noises or unexpected physical contact?
  • When faced with stressful situations, do they tend to have a “meltdown”?
  • Do they often misread body language and nonverbal communication?

If you answered yes to these questions, it’s possible — even likely — that your child is highly sensitive.

Raising any child is challenging. But when your child has ADHD or high sensitivity, it’s easy to feel like everyone is trying to “fix” them or change them into something they’re not. It’s important to tune into what you think is suitable for your child — what they need and what works for them. Sometimes it can help to reframe the situation and think about what you do want for your child — not what you don’t

Every child is unique, and their potential is unlimited. As a parent, you may be worried about your child’s symptoms or behaviors. Or perhaps someone has already told you that your child has a medical condition or developmental disability. You may wonder what the diagnosis means for your child or how it will affect their life. Some are misdiagnosed or misunderstood. What matters most is that children receive the support they need to reach their full potential, including help (from you, teachers, and so on) with any challenges they may face.

And, most importantly, let your child know that they are loved exactly as they are. There’s nothing wrong with them just because they don’t fit into a box. They’re amazing and special, high sensitivity, ADHD, and all!

I have created a free Facebook group of like-feeling moms called Empath Mama, and I would love to have you join others like you for loving support and guidance.   

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