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Diversifying Neurodiversity: Common Misconceptions About ADHD

by Nara Cowing //

Reserved. Quiet. A pleasure to have in class. Needs to participate more.

These were all used to describe me throughout my primary and secondary school experiences. They are, however, not the words that one would expect to describe a child with ADHD. Nonetheless, I was recently diagnosed with Combined Presentation ADHD.

Contrary to popular belief, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by much more than hyperactivity or trouble focusing in class. Under the surface, people with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction, fatigue, impulsivity, emotional regulation, working memory, and more. 

Those with ADHD are considered neurodivergent. This is a label that also includes other neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, OCD, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, etcetera. Mental illnesses such as Depression, Anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder are considered “neuroatypical,” while those without either are considered “neurotypical.”

In the past, ADHD was solely characterized by hyperactivity. If you were inattentive but not hyperactive, you had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). With the publication of the DSM-5, the diagnostic condition changed to identify three subtypes of ADHD. This altogether eliminated the diagnosis of ADD by characterizing the three presentations of ADHD as Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive, and Combined (both inattentive and hyperactive). 

Several conditions are comorbid to ADHD, including (but not limited to) Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, Auditory Processing Disorders, Anxiety, and Specific Learning Disability. 

That was a mouthful.

The common misconceptions about ADHD are harmful to both diagnosed and undiagnosed individuals. Those in school settings are often labeled “unmotivated” or considered bad students when, in fact, they are eager to learn but have trouble with memory, attention, and initiating tasks such as homework or note-taking. Individuals are considered “lazy” when they have trouble taking showers or brushing their teeth regularly due to executive dysfunction. 

All too often, neurodivergent and disabled people are left out of the conversation, even conversations about their own communities. Organizations like Autism Speaks are designed by abled individuals to allow them to dominate the conversation, rather than letting disabled or neurodivergent voices speak up. You will rarely see a neurodivergent person diagnosing someone else as neurodivergent. Our communities are dominated by non-disabled and neurotypical people.

Furthermore, ADHD is severely undiagnosed in girls and people of color, largely due to the stereotypes surrounding this disorder. ADHD is not just the young, white boy being disruptive in an elementary school classroom. Bias clouds physicians who do not learn that behaviors present differently in those from marginalized groups and diverse cultures.

We are taught to behave, sit still, and act “like a lady” in order to fulfill our role in the patriarchal society we live in.

Girls who grow up with ADHD are often forced to mask it more than young boys. We are taught to behave, sit still, and act “like a lady” in order to fulfill our role in the patriarchal society we live in. This conformity often coincides with hiding the most commonly identifiable ADHD traits, such as fidgeting or impulsivity. We live behind the shame of being too loud, fidgeting too much, being too much, while boys are told that it is normal and that “boys will be boys.” 

According to the CDC, boys are 7.3% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. The National Center for Health Statistics adds that White and Black children are significantly more likely to be diagnosed than Asian and Hispanic children. 

Is this because of a genuine disparity in the population of those who have ADHD, or is this a systemic issue permeating our ability to acknowledge that neurodiversity is diverse? I mean, it’s in the name. So what makes this so hard?

Going forward, I challenge you to look beyond the statistics and stereotypes. See neurodiversity for what it truly is and neurodiverse people for what we can truly be. Neurodiversity is something to be praised and loved, not hidden and admonished.