ADHD and Women

ADHD is an underdiagnosed neurological condition among women

What do you think of when you think of ADHD?  For most of us a picture of a little boy comes to mind: a little boy who runs, makes a mess, is generally unable to pay attention, and makes the adults in his life want to pull their hair out in frustration of how to support him better.

Rarely do people think of an adult woman who is struggling in university to keep it all together: a woman who is struggling to meet the demands of classes, living on her own, and having a part time job.  For most of us we associate that with depression or anxiety.  And while it might be depression or anxiety, it might also be ADHD.

How Does Someone Develop ADHD

ADHD is a biological disorder, and according to an episode on the Nature of Things*, 4.4% of adults have ADHD with many of them never having been diagnosed.  4.4% may seem small, but compare that to the prevalence of diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) which is 0.3% according to the Public Health Agency of Canada* and suddenly you realise that we're talking about a pretty big number

So if there are 4.4% of Canadians living with ADHD and many of them are undiagnosed and oblivious to having ADHD at all, why does it matter?  In matters of mental health, many of us think ignorance is bliss because of any stigma around diagnosis.  Suspend the stigma though, and consider that diagnosis could lead to treatment which could lead to a better quality of life. The answer of why undiagnosed ADHD matters is because these people are having significant life-impacting symptoms that could be helped.  

Why Are More Boys Diagnosed?

More boys are diagnosed because they more often display the hyperactive symptoms we more easily recognise as being associated with ADHD, and they display them at an eariler age.  Girls on average don't start displaying symptoms of ADHD until they are a little older, and when they do those symptoms are generally more of the inattentive variety and can be more easily missed.  As kids in a schoolroom setting, the boy with ADHD is more typically the one who is disrupting the class whereas the girl with ADHD is more typically the girl in the back of the class absentmindedly looking out the window.  Which parent do you think is more likely to get a phone call from the teacher that their child is not fitting in, is disrupting the class, and potentially needs some outside support?  

This does not mean that more boys have ADHD, it is simply easier to recognise it in boys because the more stereotypical presentation of ADHD is more prevalent in boys and leads to more noticeable disruption.  

Symptoms in Adults with ADHD

Some of the symptoms in adults include lack of focus, memory issues, major challenges with organization, and regulating emotions.  This can look like flakiness, forgetting appointments, a feeling of overwhelm that rarely goes away, and not completing tasks that are necessary for daily living like laundry or dishes.  It can also mean missing important deadlines, procrastination, and forgetting about obligations especially when there are several obligations.  Of course everyone has these things come up occasionally, but for the person with ADHD these get in the way of daily life and can be crippling for daily functioning.

For many women who have undiagnosed ADHD it is common to feel like they just need to be more organised, less stressed, and to be better at "adulting."  The problem is that with ADHD organisation is part of the issue, stress can become a major issue because everything starts feeling overwhelming, and without the capacity to have a work-life balance it can seem like succeeding at this thing called adulting is a far off dream.  For most women with undiagnosed ADHD they do not think that there is anything going on neurologically, they think that they are personally flawed.  

To be super clear: ADHD symptoms are not a matter of laziness, mental capacity, or a personality flaw.  People who have ADHD are often above-average intelligence, and once they receive a proper diagnosis they begin thriving as they learn to manage and recognise ADHD symptoms.  For many adults who receive an ADHD diagnosis it can be a new lease on life.

There is no shame in thinking you may have ADHD, and if you find yourself curious about a possible ADHD diagnosis for yourself, then please do make an appointment with a medical professional to go over your symptoms and explore it further.  In the meantime you can look at Totally ADD's checklist, but remember that almost any test you take online is not definitive nor diagnostic including this one.

Are there Benefits to ADHD?

Of course there are benefits to ADHD, and with help to cope with the parts of ADHD that are interfering with life then the benefits have time to shine a little more.  There is a flipside to being easily distracted, and it is that once something truly grabs the attention of a person with ADHD then there is an ability to hyperfocus.  That hyperfocus lends itself well to people who need sustained drive in one area, and you'll find that there are a lot of authors, artists, athletes and scientists out there who have ADHD.  Some famous examples include athlete Simone Biles, actor/singer Justin Timberlake, business mogul Sir Richard Branson, journalist and reporter Lisa Ling, and Pulitzer prize winner Katherine Ellison.

Many adults have lived without their ADHD being diagnosed, so have had to create their own accomodations.  This makes them acutely aware that we all need different things to succeed, and many people with ADHD find themselves advocating for others.  Equal does not always mean fair, and the person with ADHD  is often a great champion for making things fair.

Spontaneity and risk are hallmarks of ADHD, and when a person who has ADHD can learn to take calculated risks and enjoy spontaneity without sacrificing their other obligations then this can make for a more fun ride through life.  And if you don't have ADHD but you have someone in your life who does then you benefit from being invited on more last-minute road trips, trying new sports, or taking a risk with a new venture.

There is something just so contagious about the energy of many people with ADHD:  their motivation, outside-the-box creativity, and drive is easy to want to be around.  These are traits of highly successful people, and we all love being around and inspired by success.  Is it surprising that the flip side to the traits of ADHD include success, motivation, and creativity?  If it is surprising, it is probably only surprising because we have a habit of only looking at one side of the coin when it comes to mental health.  

If you are reading this and recognise yourself in the symptoms, please know you are not alone.  It is definitely true that when a person who has ADHD can harness the gifts of ADHD they can absolutely flourish both in their own life and in society.  I believe the secret to harnessing the awesome gifts of ADHD lies in learning about, recognising, and managing the more troubling symptoms of ADHD through counselling, medication, meditation, natural therapies, and/or other interventions.

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*References used throughout:

Diabetes in Canada: Facts and Figures from a Public Health Perspective:

ADHD: Not Just for Kids: