What you need to know

In my work teaching learning strategies to parents and students of all ages, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is increasingly present in the conversation. I hear from clients wondering about symptoms to making sense of the intricacies of a diagnosis, from practicing the art of self-advocacy to learning skillful ways to not just cope but also tap into its potential gifts.

For insight into the complexities of ADHD, I turned to René Brooks, founder of Black Girl, Lost Keys, who has been diagnosed with ADHD three times, once at age 7, once at 11, and finally at 25. I also reached out to Dana Daniels, founder and CEO of Blue Sky Learning.

The context

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder or impairment in regulating attention. It affects the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus on, and execute tasks. Approximately 4 to 6 percent of adults and 5 to 7 percent of children have been diagnosed with ADHD—that’s roughly one out of every 21 people across the country.

ADHD symptoms vary by subtypes—inattentive, hyperactive, or combined. People who present as predominantly inattentive might struggle with paying close attention to details, resisting distraction, following through on instructions, remembering routine chores, sticking to lengthy tasks, and listening in conversation. Those who present as hyperactive might struggle with sitting still, fidgeting, impulse control, interrupting, or moving or talking excessively. Someone with combined ADHD experiences both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms.

The contrast

When looking at the reported data, boys are about twice as likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than girls, and some ADHD subtypes are more difficult to diagnose in girls and adults. But growing research indicates that ADHD affects girls more than has so far been investigated. In fact, there may be a general bias toward diagnosing ADHD in girls because of the way their symptoms tend to manifest compared to boys.

“Girls are less likely to display hyperactive or impulsive symptoms,” says Daniels, “and can appear inattentive, which causes fewer problems in the classroom. Girls are socialized to people-please and can compensate for the disorder so well it becomes mistaken as immaturity or lack of academic skill instead of ADHD. Sexism plays a pervasive role in the performance of women overcompensating for their symptoms.”

The consult

“When someone is experiencing symptoms that have a negative impact on their life,” says Brooks, “I think they owe it to themselves to investigate at the earliest opportunity.” Daniels adds that an “official diagnosis can be a sign of relief, a grieving process, a reconciliation, or spark an identity crisis.” For support before, during, or after a diagnosis, some places to start include a psychiatrist, family physician, or psychologist.

The confirmation

As important as any intervention, support, or medication, is the honoring of someone’s ADHD experiences. Without proper acknowledgment, says Brooks, ADHD can result in behavioral, emotional, academic, vocational, and social problems that diminish quality of life.

By Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD