When I was diagnosed with ADHD last December my parents were told: ‘She’s not jumping out the window,’ as a reason why my disorder had gone unnoticed so far. Mine was a clear, comfortable diagnosis. The two doctors I saw told me that it was obvious from the initial conversation that I would make the cut; my processing speed, distractibility and hyperactivity make me an absolutely typical case of the ‘combined’ subtype of the disorder. Despite this, I was told that because I wasn’t running around the room or, apparently, jumping out of windows, my diagnosis was an unlikely event.

Why is this the criteria for a disorder with so many other symptoms? Simple: gender stereotypes.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is often diagnosed early in childhood — usually before the age of 12 — and lasts into adulthood. Typical symptoms include difficulty focusing, impulsivity, poor organisational skills and various hyper fixations. It can be treated with medications prescribed by paediatricians or GPs, but it cannot be ‘cured’ as it is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in certain transmitters in the brain. There are three subtypes: Inattentive, Hyperactive and Combined.

Gender stereotypes? Really?

I know how it sounds, but there are several ways in which sexist stereotypes stop young girls from getting diagnosed with neurodivergence, especially ADHD. First and foremost, the inattentive subtype of the disorder is more common in girls and often manifests in more inconspicuous ways. Compared to the hyperactive subtype which commonly has young boys unable to sit still, talking excessively and acting impulsively, the inattentive type is less noticeable and so less frequently recognised as ADHD. This results in a disproportionately low diagnosis rate in girls.

Social conditioning is part of the problem. Girls receive the message that they should take up as little space as possible and be seen rather than heard. Perversely, inattentive behaviour is passively encouraged if you are female. In my case, having a distracted nature and feeling bored by classwork made me a golden student. I was distracted enough to be quiet when needed, yet bored enough to complete the classwork assignments quickly. This meant that I was good at hiding my symptoms. No one saw the panic that ensued before a homework deadline. My diagnosis came as a shock to my teachers.

Hyperactive ADHD girls also suffer from gender stereotyping. If the expectation from young girls is that they should sit quietly and be inconspicuous, hyperactive girls will struggle to comply. Because of these expectations, hyperactivity in girls is reprimanded more by teachers and parents compared to the same behaviour exhibited by our male counterparts. This tends to lead to severe self-esteem issues (no one likes being told off). No wonder that girls with ADHD are more likely to develop depression or anxiety, often both, with significantly higher rates of attempted self-harm or suicide than girls without ADHD.

The damaging assumption that girls are not only less serious but also less intelligent than boys often results in a ‘ditsy and distracted’ stereotype for young girls. This labelling not only discourages intelligent girls from pursuing their interests (often helping to calm many ADHD hyperfixations), but it also conveys to those girls who struggle to work effectively that this is perfectly ‘normal’ behaviour — which is absolutely not the case, even if you happen to have ADHD.

What Does it All Mean?

It means that girls can’t get the diagnoses or help they need. Whether it be because they are made to believe that they don’t need it, or because those whom they ask for help don’t feel that they need it; regardless, girls are unable to get treatment, counselling, or even just the reassurance that they are not ‘abnormal’ and that there’s a reason why they are working harder than they feel they should be. Trust me when I say just how much of a comfort this reassurance can be.

I am incredibly grateful for my diagnosis, the treatment it allowed me to get and the forgiveness I am now ready to give myself. Through this reassurance I am able to view my ADHD as a part of me that simply needs to be accommodated, not something that needs to be ‘fixed,’ and I know I am lucky to have this perspective. I want all young girls to have the same reassurance rather than suffer in silence, thinking that this is how hard everyone has to work.

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