ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, affects people of all ages. Kids and adults can be diagnosed at any time, and even if you never had ADHD as a kid, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your life now. In fact, as we get older we struggle to keep juggling more balls at once. Running a household, building a career, raising a family, taking care of loved ones—these can all be overwhelming and cause ADHD to affect our lives more.
In women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) folks, this is especially true. Women and AFAB people carry a lot of social, financial, and emotional responsibility, but are often socialized to grin and bear it, or to be tough. That makes it much harder to notice and diagnose adult ADHD.
What Is Adult ADHD?
Adult ADHD is similar to childhood ADHD. In a previous post, we covered Executive Function Disorder and how it can make you disorganized, chronically late, and overwhelmed. While executive function issues aren’t synonymous with adult ADHD, they do overlap.
“Attention deficit” is sometimes misleading. People with adult ADHD can focus on tasks they find interesting, but have difficulty staying focused on boring or repetitive tasks. According to HelpGuide.org, other symptoms can include:
- Becoming easily distracted by low-priority activities or external events that others tend to ignore.
- Having so many simultaneous thoughts that it’s difficult to follow just one.
- Difficulty paying attention or focusing, such as when reading or listening to others.
- Frequently daydreaming or “zoning out” without realizing it, even in the middle of a conversation.
- Struggling to complete tasks, even ones that seem simple.
- A tendency to overlook details, leading to errors or incomplete work.
- Poor listening skills; for example, having a hard time remembering conversations and following directions.
- Getting quickly bored and seeking out new stimulating experiences.
The flip side of this coin is hyperfocus. Oftentimes, adults with ADHD will become consumed with tasks or projects they’re interested in, losing all track of time.You can also be hyperactive, or even manic. Hyperactivity can look similar in adults as in kids; it can also be more subtle. You may notice you get bored easily, your thoughts are often distracted, you have trouble sitting still or talk excessively and struggle to listen.
How Does Adult ADHD Affect Women/AFAB People?
Women and AFAB people show different symptoms of ADHD both as children and adults compared to boys and men. In addition to different symptoms, girls and women are often socialized differently.
“Girls are far less likely to bounce around the classroom, fighting with the teachers and their colleagues,” says Helen Read, a consultant psychiatrist and ADHD lead for a large London NHS Trust in an article for the BBC. “A girl who did that would be so criticized by peers and other people that it is just far harder for girls to behave in that way.”
Instead of “bouncing around,” women with adult ADHD are less hyperactive and impulsive, more disorganized, scattered, forgetful, and introverted. Many women with ADHD experience worsening or increased symptoms as they get older, and are more likely to experience depression later in life. Because of the difference in symptoms, gender bias and later-life or adult onset, ADHD can be more difficult to diagnose, but that doesn’t make it any less of a negative force, or any milder, for those who are diagnosed.
Why Are Women/AFAB People Undiagnosed?
According to studies, there may be as many as 4 million undiagnosed women living with adult ADHD. Why?
“These studies were based on really hyperactive young white boys who were taken to clinics,” says Dr. Ellen Littman, author of Understanding Girls with ADHD, in an Atlantic article. “The diagnostic criteria were developed based on those studies. As a result, those criteria over-represent the symptoms you see in young boys, making it difficult for girls to be diagnosed unless they behave like hyperactive boys.”
As mentioned, women and girls are socialized differently, and their symptoms also present differently. There are also stereotypical myths about girls—they develop fast, are more likely to be inattentive—that make diagnosis less common.
Being introverted, socially distant or even depressed may not alert teachers and parents to a girl’s struggle while she’s in school, but as she gets older, those symptoms are likely to get worse. That’s why addressing the problem both at its sexist, stereotypical and harmful roots are important. But there are also steps you can take as an individual, too, to address symptoms.
How Can We Get Better?
First, only a professional or your doctor can officially diagnose adult ADHD. But there are helpful self-placement tests, like this one from ADDitudeMag.com, that are a good place to start. Self-placement tests are a good option for those with less access to healthcare or who want to manage milder symptoms.
Another tip is to identify coexisting conditions. Adult ADHD often coexists with other mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, substance abuse or personality disorders. Asking your doctor to help you understand coexisting conditions will bring a fuller understanding of your struggles and treatment options. And during the pandemic, consider telehealth options to keep you and your family safe.
Lastly, continued education is paramount. Many women and AFAB people find out later in life they have adult ADHD and need to begin educating themselves on symptom treatment and management. While a doctor visit will certainly help, you’ll need to establish habits and coping mechanisms to improve your daily life, some as simple as basic wellness or mindfulness routines. Your doctor won’t always be around to help with that, but you can study up, try a new tip and find what works for you.