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Opinion: It’s time to change how we discuss ADHD

Photos by Claire Keener

For most of my life, I thought I was doing okay managing the challenges being thrown my way — that is, until the rigid structures of our world came tumbling down with the arrival of COVID-19.

It was hard knowing that I couldn’t control the pandemic that raged outside of my apartment walls, but what I found even more bothersome was the rapid changes I noticed within myself. For so long, I had overcompensated for my struggles by maintaining a death grip on the structures ruling over my life, and now that they were gone, all of those struggles boiled to the surface in one concentrated charge. 

I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on March 31, 2021. I was 19 years old and finishing up my second year of college. 

My story is not a unique one. Statistically, the odds were always stacked against me for getting an early diagnosis. Of children ages 3-17, 11.7% of boys are diagnosed with ADHD as opposed to only 5.7% of girls

The reason behind this disparity is multifaceted and can’t boil down to one specific root cause. However, much of it has to do with outdated stereotypes surrounding the condition.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts an individual’s executive functioning — a collection of mental skills that include working memory, cognitive flexibility and impulse control.  In the past, earlier medical knowledge defined ADHD on the basis of childhood hyperactivity.

As a result, boys were usually the children referred for clinical treatment, as they were more likely than girls to demonstrate disruptive and rowdy behavior. According to ADDitude Magazine, “Early studies were based on the behaviors of these white hyperactive boys; these findings helped shape the diagnostic criteria and assessment scales still in use today.”

Women aren’t excluded from experiencing hyperactivity, though their symptoms tend to manifest as inattentive behavior such as making careless mistakes, experiencing organizational difficulties or struggling to follow directions. Although these symptoms can present prolonged personal challenges, they are usually overlooked due to their lack of outward disruption. 

Women are also known to “mask” their ADHD symptoms due to societal pressure. Masking can be defined as the act of hiding or diminishing neurodiverse symptoms or traits to present a facade of normalcy, and it can make the diagnostic process difficult. 

Having a delayed diagnosis proved to be incredibly damaging. At 19 years old, the “abnormalities” I had suppressed were so deeply ingrained into my lifestyle that it was hard to grasp what I was supposed to feel. 

One of the most troubling symptoms I’ve encountered as a result of my ADHD is time blindness. I can never accurately tell how long a task will take, and I find myself panicked when even the smallest of assignments are added to my to-do list. An email that may only take three minutes to type feels as monumental as a five-page paper. 

I also find myself hesitant to take on additional responsibilities when I have a “main event” scheduled for that day. If I have a meeting to attend at 3 p.m., I feel like I’m unable to do anything beforehand, as I can never estimate how long tasks like going to the grocery store or having lunch with a friend will take. 

Student struggling with daily tasks because of ADHD
[Photo collage depicting the difficulty of tasks and time management as a common symptom of ADHD among students]
Photos by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

The inability to self-monitor or balance responsibilities without some kind of assistance or accountability measure is a vicious cycle. Pandemic learning was especially painful. Although rolling out of bed five minutes before a Zoom class certainly had its upsides, there was nothing helping me remain present with my work. Tuning out became an inevitability.

I was told that college would be a time of self-discovery, but in the seven months following my diagnosis, it feels as if I’ve had to continuously “unlearn” myself. I could no longer equate my overcompensation to coping. Simply because I’d managed to crawl my way towards the finish line through sheer willpower did not mean I was properly managing my symptoms. 

I still have plenty to learn when it comes to understanding how my brain operates. However, I’m certain of one thing: we need to reevaluate and change our discussions surrounding ADHD. 

In her TED Talk “This is what it’s really like to live with ADHD,” Jessica McCabe said, “Society is our user’s manual. We learn how our brains and bodies work by watching those around us. And, when yours works differently, it can feel like you’re broken.” 

For too long, we’ve been spoonfed a mishmash of stereotypes that continue to fuel the diagnostic disparity we see today. Rather than confining ADHD to hyperactive behavior, we must view the condition for what it is — a difference in cognition that spans a vast range of symptoms. 

By giving proper representation to ADHD, individuals can receive the proper support they need to develop healthy coping strategies that are suited to their way of thinking, and maybe in the future, it won’t take the eruption of a pandemic for people to happen upon this discovery.

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