How I Handle "Sensory Overwhelm" as a Neurodivergent Mom

Creating a sensory free home for neurodivergent Moms and Dads

As a neurodivergent mom of four young kids, my home rarely feels like a sensory-friendly place to live. If you walk into my home at any given moment, there are toys on the floor, evidence of my middle schooler’s baking obsession spread across the kitchen, and at least two crafts happening at our dining room table. Someone is at the piano, someone is crying, and someone is telling me, in great detail, about how close they are to defeating Ganon (the main antagonist from the Legend of Zelda video game).

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

I experience sounds, touch, and spaces differently from the average person, so I often find myself feeling sensory overload, which is when my senses are overstimulated. This causes me to get overwhelmed and reactive. In trying to avoid asking my kids to build their lives around my neurodivergence, I’ve failed to honor the needs my limitations pose in my life. And sometimes, I’m just not the mother I want to be.

Regularly, I become so overstimulated I cannot sleep. Dissociation, or feeling like I cannot force my brain to stay present in a moment, is a daily struggle for me. I want to isolate myself. I want to run away for the day. I can’t do those things, so I clean like my life depends on it to gain control.

What I am getting at right now is that I’d like for something to change. I can’t ignore the distress I experience at home anymore or the negative consequences it has for myself and my family. And because figuring it out on my own hasn’t worked well so far, I turned to a professional organizer along with a psychologist who specializes in working with neurodivergent people to get their take.

Creating a sensory-friendly home starts by understanding what causes you to feel overwhelmed in it and then making changes so that your place makes you feel at ease. With professional guidance, here’s how I’m making sensory-friendly changes so that my home feels safe, less overwhelming, and not as cluttered.

Start and end strong.

“Neurodivergent people often struggle with feeling overwhelmed, whether it’s stuff, emotions, or social gatherings,” says Sharon Saline, a clinical psychology and ADHD expert. “Visual clutter can be especially distressing because many neurodivergent folks are visual learners. When their space is cluttered, they often don’t know where to begin and give up before trying.”

More specifically, parents like me might struggle to sort out the details of what’s important to organize, and what needs to be thrown away or donated. This can result in what Saline describes as an “overwhelm freeze,” which feels very familiar. Because of this, she encourages parents like me to start small, with the most manageable tasks. 

For me, I have found I can push past paralysis if there is some kind of framework in place. Because of this, I resonate with her advice of a morning and evening routine. She suggests setting aside a very small amount of time, five or 10 minutes, where everyone in the family is involved in completing the same tasks each morning and the same tasks each evening before bed.

Sensory peace is in the details.

Because some sensory experiences cause me both emotional and physical distress, I need to think differently about what makes my home a calming and comfortable place. Melanie Sumner, an ADHD organizing specialist, encourages caregivers like me to embrace sensory-smart organizing.

“Consider using soft, plush storage bins for a dual purpose,” she says. “They reduce noise when rummaging for items and can double as cozy, stress-relieving tactile objects.”

Pointing out how simple this change is, Sumner says these details are the things that can make a big difference in a space. Additionally, she suggests employing structured systems in the form of a color story. This could look like assigning a color to each family member or giving a category of items their own color. 

“This not only adds a visual pop to your space, but also makes it easier for everyone, especially neurodiverse individuals, to keep track of their belongings and reduce decision fatigue,” she adds.

A mom-friendly home is a kid-friendly home.

If I’m being honest, I have pushed back against making any big changes to our home. I fear that I am forcing my limitations on my kids in some way, or asking them to live in a home that feels like a museum.

After Saline’s advice, however, I felt different. She points out that, in neurodivergent families, children often need organization, decluttered spaces, and routine just as much as their caregivers do. “You may notice the clutter more than they do but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about it,” she says. “Neurodivergent families really benefit from basic routines and simple systems.”

For me, this shift in perspective has felt like a freedom to make some changes. I can see now how things that bring me peace could do the same for my kids. One small change we’re making is based on advice from Sumner, who suggests we try creating a nomadic nook for homework, reading, and crafts.

“Use a rolling cart stocked with all the essentials, allowing it to be moved to different areas of the home,” she says. “This caters to varying sensory needs and focus levels, providing a flexible space that can adapt to the day’s demands.” When it’s not in use, I’ve dedicated a spot in a closet so it doesn’t become one more piece of visual clutter

A bigger change we’re making is to create sensory-friendly zones. We’re working on establishing a quiet space in our home, where I (or my neurodivergent kids) can retreat to for time to relax.

Moving forward, one step at a time.

I can implement the advice above to the best of my ability. I can make changes to our daily routine; I can adopt a color story or sensory-friendly organization. But, at the end of the day, I often need a little extra support. When this is true, Saline suggests scaffolding, which is a way of using supports to “strengthen or compensate for weaker executive functioning skills.”

Using my devices to set up alarms and reminders to carry out new home care routines is one of the simpler supports I’m implementing. I’ll also be turning to visual reminders, Post-its, and colorful signs, as reminders to my kids to put their toothbrushes away when they’re done or their shoes in the closet on their way in the door.

“Support can also mean having accountability buddies, co-working with someone to help stay on task, or writing down routines instead of trying to recall the steps on your own,” Saline adds.

One thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that in many cases, including mine, there are limitations to being accepted and honored when you’re neurodivergent. With the advice above, and the support of the people I am sharing this home with, I hope to create a calmer, more sensory-friendly place to live.

Mental Health Resources

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health and need support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines: