Hello! Today we’re going to be looking at some of the myths and stereotypes that surround ADHD and the truths that lay beyond in this installment of Adulting With ADHD. In our last installment, we went over the basics of ADHD in ADHD 101.
A lot of people think they know ADHD, but what most people know about ADHD isn’t entirely factual, if not completely wrong. So let’s explore some of these myths and stereotypes.
ADHD only affects kids
Nope! While ADHD is often thought of as a childhood disorder, for many, the condition has lifelong effects. Over 70% of children with ADHD are still affected in adolescence while about 50% are still affected in adulthood. [Source]
Further, many people make it to adulthood without learning they are ADHD. This can cause a wide variety of difficulties and ill effects upon a person’s life.
ADHD only affects boys
Nope! ADHD affects boys and girls equally, however, due to the misconception that ADHD is more prevalent in boys, boys are more likely to get diagnosed, thus perpetuating this myth. [Source]
Girls can have hyperactive type ADHD. Boys can have inattentive type. People of all genders can be ADHD and any of us can have any presentation. The myth that ADHD only affects boys has been a major hindrance for women and girls as it often prevents or delays diagnosis and treatment.
People with good grades can’t have ADHD
When I was 15, I went through hours and hours of psychological testing so that they could figure out what was “wrong” with me. At the end of the testing, I was told that there were basically no answers. While my test results strongly indicated ADHD, I was refused a diagnosis because I did very well in school. It would be a decade before I received a proper diagnosis and treatment that, quite literally, changed my life.
Many people think that doing well in school precludes a person from being ADHD, but this idea holds little truth. While ADHD can certainly affect a child’s performance in school for a variety of reasons, this is not true for all ADHD people.
Personally, I have always been academically gifted (one of those twice exceptional peeps). As such, while I often struggled to pay attention in school, I was typically able to quickly teach myself the material and thus keep up appearances of doing well. What most people didn’t see were the hours spent trying to do my homework but not being able to get started no matter how hard I tried. Other people didn’t see how much harder I had to work to get the grades I did. My intelligence made up for the deficits caused by ADHD. From talking with other ADHD people, this seems to be fairly common.
ADHD isn’t real
There are many who purport that ADHD isn’t a real disorder but rather [an excuse for bad parenting/the result of the ~evil~ technology/too much sugar/etc. etc.]. However, we actually have found cases of ADHD being described all the way back in 1775 in a textbook by Adam Weikard in German. Over the intervening centuries, over 10,000 clinical and scientific publications about ADHD have been released. The research studies that have emerged during this time have shown many differences between those with ADHD and those without. [Source]
Aside from the historical evidence of the existence of ADHD, we must only observe those who are ADHD. People with ADHD often face impairments that affect major life activities including social, emotional, academic, and work functioning. The struggles of ADHD are very real.
A study that looked at occupational outcomes of young adults with ADHD between the ages of 23 and 32 found that young adults with ADHD are 11 times more likely to be unemployed and not in school. Further, these young adults were 61% more likely to have been fired (compared to 43% of comparison group), 33% more likely to have been laid off (compared to 13% of the comparison group), and earned about $2 less per hour than those in the comparison group. [Source]
Further, ADHD adults are almost 50% more likely to be in a serious car crash and having ADHD makes a person three times more likely to be dead by the age of 45. We can also see the impacts of ADHD in teens with the disorder. 35% of teens with ADHD eventually drop out of school. 45% of teens with ADHD have been suspended. 30% of teens with ADHD have failed or had to repeat a year of school. [Source]
Additionally, ADHD runs in families. If a parent has ADHD, there is a 57% chance that their child will also have ADHD. If a twin has ADHD, their twin has a 70-80% chance of having ADHD.
Finally, brain scan studies have shown differences between the development of ADHD brains and non-ADHD brains. ADHD brains show cortical thinning in the frontal regions, reduced volume in the inferior frontal gyrus, and reduced grey matter in the parietal, temporal, and occipital cortices. [Source]
If you weren’t diagnosed as a kid, you can’t have ADHD
While ADHD must be present in childhood in order to receive a diagnosis, you don’t need to have been diagnosed as a kid to have ADHD. In fact, 75 percent of adults with ADHD were never diagnosed!
But how could this have been missed? You may be wondering.
Well, let’s imagine a scale like the one below. The green is your coping skills and the red is life stress. In this image, there are more coping skills than life stress, so the scales are tilted in our favor. What this would look like in real life would be a child/teen with ADHD who has enough coping tools to compensate for or mask their difficulties.
Now, imagine this student progressing through school. As the years go on, life stress increases, but so do their coping skills (whether they are consciously or subconsciously developed). As such, no one around them notices that they have ADHD. Sure, they may be forgetful at times or interrupt people a little too much or obsess over a particular subject, but they are doing well in school. Maybe the student feels like they have to work harder than their peers just to get by, but they keep this to themselves for fear that they just can’t handle what everyone else can.
Then, our student goes to college. Things start to get more difficult as they are thrown into the college world and now must manage their own time and responsibilities to a much greater degree than ever before. But, it’s ok. They obsessively schedule their time and make sure everything is organized perfectly. Sure, they barely sleep, pull all-nighters, and find themselves crying more than seems normal, but they are getting good grades, and this is what college is like, right?
At this point, our student’s scales are teetering back and forth. The coping skills and life stress are about evenly matched, occasionally tilting in one direction or the other. When the scales tip towards life stress, our student finds themself struggling greatly to keep up with their work, possibly even just to maintain activities of daily living. But then the scales tip back towards coping skills and our student feels more confident and brushes of the bad time as a fluke. This continues for a while with the bad moments spaced out enough that our student is able to ignore them.
Finally, our student goes off to grad school. With the increased pressures and lack of support our student experiences, the scales finally tip as shown here:
At this point, while our student has continued to build coping skills, the level of stress they are facing has outpaced their coping skills. It is now that the students ADHD becomes very apparent. They struggle to do the growing pile of work they have waiting for them. They sit at a desk for hours and hours trying to just get started but can’t seem to get themself to actually do it. They are crying more and more often and feel like their life is crumbling around them.
Finally, our student decides to seek out help. They learn that they have ADHD and start employing methods to better manage their life with this newfound knowledge. Through a combination of medication, therapy, and self-understanding, our student is able to get their life back on track. They are able to do work again. They find themselves being more productive than they ever had been.
Though they weren’t diagnosed as a child, this person definitely has ADHD, and always has. However, because of their environment and mix of skills and difficulties, their struggles went unnoticed for years.
This is just one example of how ADHD can go unnoticed. There are many other ways a person’s life can play out that would lead to not being diagnosed until adulthood. For some people, parents refuse to admit there could be anything “wrong” with their child. For others, signs of ADHD are noticed but written off because the person doesn’t fit the stereotypes.
Regardless of the reason why, ADHD that isn’t discovered until adulthood is just as valid as ADHD diagnosed during childhood.
Thanks for reading about the myths surrounding ADHD. In the next installment of Adulting With ADHD, we’ll be exploring diagnosis of ADHD.