This blog is not FDA approved
By now, I think most people realize that girls can have ADHD too. It’s not a gender-linked condition; diagnosis rates should actually be closer to 50-50, though some say 3:1 (but that makes no sense to me and I haven’t seen those authors cite research articles – which I’m also not bothering to do because I’d inevitably get distracted and never finish writing this. Take my word, I could cite the crap out of the research articles, but then your eyes would roll back in your head and… Oh, right. Blog post.)
But they’re not. Those prone to citing statistics say that 50% – 75% of girls with ADHD go undiagnosed. On average, girls are diagnosed 5 years later than boys, usually when they start struggling with schoolwork in middle school. Sadly, despite the equal opportunity nature of ADHD, most of the information available is still more pertinent to boys than girls and to men than women, so a few female-focused resources are listed at the end of this post.
Back to the focus of this post: the boys get all the attention, and there’s an easy explanation for that. Boys and girls display symptoms of ADHD differently. Most people think they understand what ADHD looks like, since disruptive behavior is a primary (though not entirely reliable) indicator. For boys.
Girls, however, cause fewer problems in the classroom. They’re usually more inattentive than hyperactive, but as many child development studies suggest, they also tend to be more socially sensitive than boys, even at a young age. They realize that the kind of behavior that hyperactive, impulsive boys display is not acceptable. So they work hard – very, very hard – to compensate.
Instead, girls with ADHD tend to appear immature or lacking in academic ability. The “space cadet” stereotype can be relatively accurate for a girl with ADHD. It’s not because she’s truly vacant; she just can’t pay attention, no matter how hard she tries. Girls with ADHD often struggle to fit in with peers – or they may seem excessively talkative, dreamy, bossy, forgetful – and on and on.
Girls with ADHD tend to dread school, have low self-esteem, and show signs of anxiety or depression from internalizing their symptoms. They can appear to be “drama queens” and compared to their peers may seem moodier, more emotional, and easily moved to tears. Those with stronger hyperactive tendencies (a very small minority) may be typical tomboys, often getting embroiled in impulsive escapades which are increasingly dangerous in adolescence. And of course, they have a hard time paying attention and finishing tasks.
And that’s basically the story of my youth. I was continually accused of dawdling, never finishing anything, and being terminally forgetful. I was a complete tomboy and could never understand the boring, gossipy, backstabbing girls with their stifling social hierarchy. As I got older, my self-esteem suffered; anxiety and depression escalated, so I was on antidepressants by age 13 – and my folks were not quick to medicate. I got into all kinds of impulsive trouble (arrested in middle school, for example) and overemotional? Yeah, you could say that. At no point before college was I able to fit into the social scene.
But no one saw these symptoms in me, or saw them as symptoms. I was “precocious” and managed to compensate well enough that I was a high school valedictorian. Even I didn’t realize I was struggling until my grades started to show it in college. And I was really, really struggling; I had never learned the organization and study skills I desperately needed to kick it up a notch academically. Lucky for me, my mom (a special ed teacher) figured it out – but that story has already been told elsewhere. Even today I can’t shake the ingrained belief that I’m a dawdler who never finishes anything. I take extreme measures to ensure otherwise, but no amount of overcompensating or accomplishment makes that go away.
So next time you see a “spacey” little girl twirling her hair, a tomboy running wild and climbing trees, or a perennially disorganized young mother whose life is utter chaos and home is always a wreck, just remember: she may be just as smart as her peers, but working harder than any of them to compensate for an invisible disability.
Besides, with a little help, those young space cadets can go on to become rocket engineers, astrophysicists, or xenobiologists. And don’t you dare tell them they can’t!