When you think about ADHD, there is a good chance that you have a certain image in your mind. An image of a noisy, energetic, impossible to control little boy. The kid in your class in school who was the class clown, always in trouble for disrupting the class, the one whose name you will never forget because you heard the teachers shouting it so many times it is etched into your brain.
You probably won’t think of the quiet girl who never remembered her homework. The one who was berated for her poor handwriting, for looking out of the window when the teacher was talking, for doodling all over her school books, and for never doing quite as well as she ‘should’. The girl who never quite fitted in with the crowd. Who everyone thought of as a bit odd, who wasn’t part of any clear social group. The one who everyone laughed at when she got hit by a netball because she was distracted by a bird hopping on the ground nearby.
Or the girl who was riddled with anxiety about her homework and exams, and barely got any sleep before any test because she was so terrified of failing that she studied until she couldn’t sleep. Who was always first to raise her hand and seemed desperate for the teacher to tell her she was right, to be told that she was doing well.
The noisy boys get noticed and have to be dealt with because they disrupt everyone. The quiet girls get told the same things every parents’ evening, every school report – could do better, not living up to her potential, must try harder.
But because they don’t bother anyone else, they don’t stop the teachers from achieving their lesson plans, they get largely ignored. The failings are seen as their failings, and while solutions are sought to help calm the hyperactive boys, the quiet girls simply absorb the message that they are not good enough, and that they are simply not trying hard enough.
The boys are given a diagnosis and treatment. The girls are given shattered self-esteem and a sense of having failed before they even get started in life.
And no one even realises that it has happened. Least of all the girls. Because they have been left in no doubt that they have failed to achieve their potential, and they accept that this is who they are.
The stereotypical image of ADHD hides the realities of the condition and makes it hard for women to recognise it in themselves. So many of the traits of ADHD run counter to the idea of ‘what women should be’ in society. Women are the homemakers, the organised ones, the nurturers, the solid, stable foundation for their families. Clever girls are supposed to grow up into high achieving women who are expected to be able to manage their careers and care for their families. When those girls grow up and have to run their adult lives, and find that they can’t achieve all that they feel they “should”, this can fuel self-recrimination, worsening their self-esteem and diminishing mental health.
In the case of too many, this leads to years of anxiety, low self-worth, depression, and developing unhealthy coping strategies such as reliance on food, shopping, substances, relationships, career or other means to fuel their self-worth, or numb their emotions, or both.
Misinformation, stigma and stereotype make it hard to see and identify ADHD when it presents in anything other than the naughty little boy.
Contrary to common understanding, and some serious misnaming, ADHD is not a deficit of attention, it is an inability to regulate that attention. So daydreaming, forgetfulness, an inability to organise work, to start and complete tasks, to notice things such as a messy room, trouble sticking with routines and habits can all be signs of ADHD that get easily missed. We come to see ourselves, or the girls in our lives being defined by those traits, rather than recognising them as very real challenges and struggles that the person needs support with.
Women and girls with ADHD are more likely to have the ‘inattentive type’ of ADHD, rather than the ‘hyperactive type that is more present in boys, more obvious and easier to diagnose. This form of ADHD is more internal, it is a hyperactive mind rather than a hyperactive body. Many also present the ‘combined’ type, with hyperactivity either in their bodies, or in their minds.
Hyperactive ADHD might not appear as perpetual motion the way you think of the little boy who can’t sit still, but can be seen in the restlessness that results in a long and varied career, numerous house moves, a string of failed relationships, countless discarded hobbies, a collection of half-read books and so on.
ADHD comes with a raft of emotional issues, which have been removed from the medical diagnostic criteria but will be present in almost every woman and girl with ADHD you meet. The emotional dysregulation, or inability to manage their emotions, can lead to them diagnosed with mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and so on, with the root cause of their emotional turmoil missed and masked with medication.
Common symptoms of ADHD that often present in girls include
- Apparent extremes of emotions, and quick to react emotionally
- Easily distracted, trouble staying focused and on task
- Messy and disorganised
- Intense procrastination, combined with an apparent ability to produce quality work under immense pressure
- Sensitivity to noise, with a high startle reflex
- Being excessively talkative
- Poor time management
- Trouble taking turns, tendency to interrupt others
- Prone to making ‘careless’ mistakes
- Sensitivity to sensations, such as itchy fabric
- Seeming to be unmotivated and lacking in effort
- Trouble following directions and instructions
These are often missed as symptoms, and tend to be seen as personality traits and evidence of the girl’s failings.
For many women, the diagnosis comes much later in life after many years of struggle, shame and worsening self-esteem and mental health. While the discovery of their ADHD can be extremely liberating, helping them finally understand why life was always such a challenge, the price these women pay over the years is too high.
Iridescent Minds has been created to help change this reality, to raise understanding of the realities of ADHD, help more women find themselves and reclaim who they are, and to prevent another generation of ‘lost girls falling through the cracks of society.
Women with ADHD can be phenomenal when they can own who they are, know their strengths and how to manage the aspects of ADHD that challenge them. But we need to make it easier for them to discover, treat and manage their ADHD, and to remove the stigma that the image of the naughty little boy’ has left us with.
We are proud of our Iridescent Minds and would love you to stand tall and proud of yours. Become part of the movement to change the story we are told about ADHD. Join our mailing list today to stay up to date with our campaign and work.
Hi Leah – I’ve previously attended your Unstoppable course which was brilliant! I am currently doing an MSc in Human Resource Management and I’m at the stage where I’m about to do a dissertation (there’s a long story behind that one!). I am thinking about doing something about the struggles ADHD women face at work and with their careers and I wondered if I could potentially be of help to the Iridescent Mind cause while doing so? If so I’d love to pick your brains. I very new to this journey but keen to help as many people as possible. I also wondered if you would consider helping me to reach out to female ADHD sufferers who might be interested in participating in my survey when I get to that point? I love everything about Iridescent Minds – what a total stroke of genius. I love it when a plan comes together ;). I wish you the very best of luck with this and send you my very heartfelt thanks for all you are doing. You Rock!!! Thank You Thank You Thank You!!!
As I was reading the article I started to weep, out of nowhere as it rang so true with my early life in school (and to a certain degree now). I haven’t been diagnosed officially but am convinced I have ADHD. I work in an SEND school as a teaching assistant and find I have lots of empathy and understanding with children especially if they struggle to” get things”. I recently, during lockdown completed several courses, one of which was about understanding ADHD. There were several videos and comments about how women (in particular) had found out they had ADHD later in life. It made me look at my own life and my horrendous exam results in secondary school. I got out my old reports from school and looking over them with my husband and reading (on every subject except art and drama which I loved) that she is a really bright girl if only she remembered her homework or concentrated more in class, she is a real pleasure to have in the class but does tend to chat a lot. I hadn’t thought about the fact I may have had ADHD it wasn’t very well known when I was young (I’m 54 in June) or that other people didn’t have the same problems I was obviously facing. I didn’t have many friends and was in no particular social group. After reading your article and finding it very enlightening I am going to look more into how I can help myself to a better mindset and understanding.
I could be writing about myself, at school I was easily distracted, daydreamer,every book had doodles on ,but amazingly I could pull it all back Study for a couple of hours before an exam and get really good grades ,but this made me feel evemore worse because I’d think if I did apply myself I could be anything I want to be ,feel free to contact me ,both me and my ‘weird ” childhood friend both had late diagnosis of ADHD , we laugh at our antics now at which was classic ADHD
Everything I have read on this page IS ME!
I feel like an emotional wreck, but so so glad I researched it.