You don’t look like you have adhd?
I thought that only affects children?
At least it doesn't seem like it has affected you that much?
Such seemingly harmless statements. But it is a reflection of society's misconceptions about ADHD and neurodiversity.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a part of the neurodiversity spectrum, meaning ADHDers brains are wired differently and have significant differences compared to neurotypical counterparts (1). These differences can be incredibly valuable but, without the right support they can be impairing (2).
Contrary to popular belief ADHDers do not simply lack the ability to focus, we have differences with self-regulation. This means our attention tends to be focused on many different things at the same time. As I sit here for the 6th time trying to write this blog post I am simultaneously playing PlayStation, listening to a podcast about psychological assessment and also tragically failing to follow a recipe for a chicken curry my mum gave me two months ago. ADHDers have challenges with executive functioning. Executive Functions are a set of mental abilities that allow an individual to accomplish tasks. These systems include inhibiting behavior, focusing on long term goals, internal goal directed speech, emotional regulation, and planning and problem solving. They work together like a captain of a footy team. Failures of these functions are similar to a captain who rocks up game day hungover. We struggle to function without good leadership (executive functions) (3).
I was only formally diagnosed with ADHD last year but, it’s something that I had suspected for years before. My ADHD is subtle, as a child I was not the one kid running around the classroom screaming but, was the child constantly asking for toilet breaks, asking to borrow pencils or daydreaming so vividly. My biggest trauma was in 3rd Grade zoning out and embarrassingly accidentally eating another young girl’s chicken nuggets. A guilt I continue to struggle with. ADHD in Sri Lankan and other South Asian Populations is still not greatly understood. My parents threw me into so many drama classes to develop my confidence, as they believed my inability to make friends was a result of low self-esteem. I almost retained nothing my entire primary and high school education. I was lucky to grow up with a supportive family, who accepted me and sat with me reteaching me the curriculum after school. My teenage years I lost 3-4 casual jobs in fast food/ hospitality because I couldn't learn the skills fast enough because my attention would not allow it. My parent teacher interviews always resulted with teachers telling me and my parents that ‘I needed to apply myself more’ or ‘contribute more to discussions in class’. Only those who know me well would know about some of the challenges I have faced, challenges many in the neurodiverse community experience every day.
During my childhood and adolescence ADHD was not understood to the degree it is now. ADHD is not some slight inconvenience, there have been countless studies showcasing its negative effects. 75% of children with ADHD experience some comorbid mood disorder and 18% of children diagnosed early with ADHD experienced depression as adolescents 10 times the rate of those without ADHD (5/ 6). Emotional regulation challenges are common in ADHD and we often experience something called Rejective Sensitivity Dysphoria which essentially is an intense reaction triggered by the perception that we have been rejected by important people in their life or a belief that we have failed to live up to our own personal standards. (15). Imagine everyone around you has been given a script and you are also given a script but your own one is written in a different language, this is often what the ADHD experience is like. These differences ADHDers experience, result in feelings of isolation and feeling like an alien.
I was lucky that during my undergrad year of university, I was a group facilitator at a Private Practice. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist at the time politely pulled me aside and suggested I get assessed after I forgot to take payments for the group for the 6th week in a row. I immediately hit hard denial, my experience ranged from refusing to seek help to fear of showing weakness or admitting that I was different to anyone else. It wasn't till I started working in the disability sector and a respected and wise, old supervisor told me; ‘every behavior has a function’ and ‘children are rarely difficult because they want to be, there’s usually a discrepancy between our expectations and what they can actually achieve’. The more I worked as an assessment Psychologist providing ADHD diagnoses the more, I realized that neurodiversity was very real. Receiving the final diagnosis, I was overcome with a great feeling of relief. I am not defective I am just different.
Over recent years there has been a shift to a neuro affirmative movement within clinical practice. Neuroaffirmative means that we do not view ADHD as something that is “wrong” with an individual or that something is “broken” or needs fixing. Instead, we view ADHD, Autism and other neurotypes as simply being different and part of human diversity (13). Neuro Affirmative practice recognises that both strengths and challenges exist, these can change depending on context, but it does not seek to change the individual rather it seeks to accommodate needs and to establish the appropriate supports an individual needs to thrive (14).
Contrary to popular belief ADHD is not overdiagnosed, research shows it is actually under diagnosed in adults and females. It is not a result of bad parenting or eating too much sugar (7,8), TikTok has not confused individuals, it is a platform that has created bite sized digestible information for neurodiverse individuals to consume (something that supports our engagement and self-regulation needs). ADHD has been shown to be associated with some positive strengths. For example, creativity in a problem-solving tasks and impulsive personalities may help to generate more new ideas (11,12).
Whilst I may not be able to make a chicken curry, when something else interests me (e.g. All things psychological assessment and counselling!) nobody can stop me and I will not shut up about it. This drive ADHD gives me is the reason I am a psychologist today, and I am privileged to be able to help others like me. I encourage any individual who may be curious about their own neurodiversity or a family member to keep an open mind and seek support.
How would this diagnosis benefit you?
If you don’t meet the criteria, what would it mean for you?
If a diagnosis can provide clarity for one’s own identity it is most definitely worth it.