When we think of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, most of us picture a hyperactive kid – probably a boy – who has more energy than they know what to do with.
What we usually don’t picture is women. Women with ADHD often fall through the cracks, their symptoms not recognized by doctors who have long considered ADHD to be a male disorder. Our current definition of ADHD — hyperactive and almost exclusively male — is far too myopic. The hyperactive and impulsive subtype is common in males, but in women, it’s rare.
ADHD for women is just different. It’s not hyperactivity or impulsivity — having ADHD is feeling like you never really have it together. It’s constantly feeling anxious or even depressed; it’s a whirlwind of stress, shame and failure.
I am a woman with ADHD, and I didn’t know it until I was in high school. My mom and my aunt didn’t find out until they were nearly 50. And we aren’t the only ones.
Studies estimate that as many as 50 to 75 percent of girls with ADHD are never diagnosed. Their symptoms are overlooked or questioned by parents, doctors and teachers.
The issue is that many people, even doctors, misunderstand ADHD at its core. Much of what we know about ADHD is based primarily off of studies conducted on young boys in the 1970s, subjects whose symptoms differ dramatically than those of their female counterparts. And when ADHD goes undiagnosed, it can have severe, lasting consequences.
Like me, many women with ADHD struggle with mental illness, self-harm and may even attempt suicide. In fact, a woman with ADHD is three to four times more likely to try to take her own life.
For years, my disorder has been invalidated by people who simply don’t understand it. I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” to have ADHD, that I’m just lazy, that I’m lying about my condition so that a doctor will give me Adderall, despite it being a medication that I literally cannot function without.
Maybe I am smart, but intelligence isn’t limited to those who are neurotypical. In fact, that’s exactly why my ADHD went undetected for so long — people assumed that my ability to succeed academically meant that I wasn’t struggling.
The bottom line is that living with ADHD as a woman can make the burden of society’s expectations feel even heavier. It materializes in every part of your life, whether it’s school, work or simply going to the grocery store. The lack of scientific knowledge and understanding surrounding ADHD in women is a serious problem that has existed for far too long. We must do better.