6 Overlooked Signs of ADHD in Girls and Women

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adhdAs a child of the nineties, I remember how Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was often talked about. Professionals assumed, based on behavior, that boys were more likely to have it. Now, 20-plus years later, we’re finding out how wrong that assumption was. It turns out girls do get ADHD, just often undetected. Half as many girls and women are diagnosed, though they are also likely to have it. Why are all these girls and women undiagnosed? One reason is gender bias. Many of the ways ADHD presents in girls or women are assumed to be “just part of their personality.” Here are six traits and characteristics often present in girls with ADHD that get overlooked.

She’s in Her Own Little World: aka Dreamy

This one is often overlooked because little girls are often described as “dreamy” or in their own little world. I would get left behind staring at Christmas displays on family outings. In middle school or high school, I would zone out in class or during sermons. Where boys often fidget or create disruption, girls may be sitting still, and their mind is far away. I would draw elaborate roses and portraits of classmates, celebrity crushes, or the teacher. Teachers were rarely upset by this, as it wasn’t a disruption. I would show off the drawings after class was over. As I got older, I learned to slow my brain down by taking notes of important points in calligraphy. This kept me present and helped me actually listen (sometimes).

Spacing out while driving can also be a sign. It turns out girls or also boys with ADHD often have accidents due to zoning out. I had three bad car accidents within a span of three years, from 20-23. I had no idea how connected these were. Zoning out and being spacy while driving definitely don’t pair well. Thanks to technology, I now drive a car with all the safety features, including emergency crash warning and braking, that have collectively saved me from many an accident. 

She’s Scatterbrained or Artsy: Nonlinear Thought

I often felt like I was on a totally different frequency than everyone else. My thoughts were “different.” My thoughts swirled around like clouds or bounced up and down like a yoga ball. An example of this in my daily life now would be an ad for ice cream on my playlist makes me think of craving chocolate, which makes me think of a friend’s birthday, better text them, ok, done. This reminds me, I said I’d bring ice cream to kiddo’s play date, better order that now, “click” done. That reminds me that I forgot Blake’s chocolate milk on the counter, oh it’s gone bad.

My thoughts are not linear or ever in an A, B, C format. My written outlines only make sense to me or another artist. This means creative brainstorming has always been a blast for me. There are no limits.

She’s Shy: Social Anxiety 

This is one I learned to mask early. But as a little kid, most memories of social settings are of feeling sick before them. I would get so nervous thinking about going to our cooperative school that my stomach would ache the entire night before. Before my 8th Birthday party, I begged my mom to cancel it because what if no one came? I didn’t relax until all 15 friends were there, and it turned out they were having fun. I guess I wasn’t a loser? 

In high school, I learned quickly how to assimilate. I spent hours mastering every fall beauty and style trend and developed disordered eating (more common with ADHD) to make sure I was socially seen as “cool,” though inside, I was intensely insecure.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I worked an intense live-in position that I finally found a relief for social anxiety: running. I became comfortable living in my own body without needing to look model thin and benefited from better focus, too. I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a perfect 4.0 GPA for the first time in my life.

She’s a Hot Mess: Disorganized

Bless my dear older sister, Cindy. We shared a room growing up, and only she cleaned, except when I felt guilty, or she threw up her hands in frustration. Then, I would spend all day to make it spotless, only to have it back to chaos within days. She did both our laundry until she left for college. I was an RA in college and ended up with my own room for the last few years, studying art and psychology. I just wrote it off as part of my creative genius persona- Einstein was messy, too! Friends either accepted it or joked with me.

The lack of organization is something I battle constantly still. In work settings, my desk or office is most often a disaster of papers, lists, and mail. I prefer having meetings offsite or remotely. No amount of organizers, file cabinets, or bookshelves can save me from myself here.

The trouble of organizing extends to all areas of my life. And it’s compounded in my marriage. After moving into our first house together, my husband and I both realized organization isn’t our strength. We both will go a long time between deep cleans, and things get so cluttered. We do the basics like dishes and laundry. The clutter, though, is what literally just piles up. Some deadline comes up, like an event, or we will be having someone who might be uncomfortable in the mess over. Then we purge, deep clean, and start over. 

She’s Unmotivated: Intense Procrastination 

I learned that often, without the pressure of a deadline, I can’t focus. Why waste hours with my mind wandering around when I could wait to the end and spend maybe two instead? So, I would crank out an essay in the early hours before printing it off on the way to class and get an A. This strategy did not work well for math or science, and that showed. Professionally, I could work well in a team setting as meetings and collaboration made it easier to break up the process versus doing it all alone.

She’s So Random: Frequently Interrupting Others 

In conversation, I still struggle with this. I’ll get excited and finish someone’s sentence. Usually, at home, where I spent many hours every day with my ten siblings, our dinner or casual conversations were like a waterfall. Someone was always talking. There were no pauses, and you would have to jump in to be heard. I didn’t realize you even needed to wait for that pause while others talked until I began my first job as a teenager. Then, I realized just how hard it was for me to stop and wait for that pause.

One boss in college, as professional development, had us take a session on therapeutic listening, and this helped me. I can pick out keywords or nod my head to keep myself in the conversation vs. floating off somewhere else and blurting something out. I do have to check myself on this, though, as I get excited and interrupt more often than I like to admit- sorry, friends and family, I’m trying!

What does this diagnosis mean for me as a 33-year-old mom?

So many of these neurodivergent traits have made me who I am today. My passion for art, calligraphy, and music and my ability to feel and tap into deep emotions are all parts of me. 

Understanding why certain tasks have always seemed more difficult for me helps me have compassion for my brain. I still often feel insecure about my struggle to manage the clutter that accumulates or the spaciness that leads to embarrassing lapses in memory. Some of the challenges ADHD present, like lack of impulse control (difficult in a marital argument), are what lead me to seek help. This is very much the beginning for me on this journey.

From reading and studying, I am starting to learn new ways to work with my brain and body instead of against them. For example, running the laundry every single morning prevents the laundry mountain from growing to Everest size. I am working with a healthcare team to try medications that I can take while breastfeeding, which can be a challenge. If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and have any tips, I would welcome them.

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