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Shedding light on the symptoms of ADHD in girls and women

An increased rise in media coverage surrounding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has led to more and more young women and Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) people receiving a diagnosis. However, this increased attention has also resulted in greater confusion and misconceptions surrounding the disorder.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects around 1 in 20 young people and 1 in 25 adults. The primary symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, and it is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, though some individuals are diagnosed in adulthood.

But what are the most common misconceptions surrounding the diagnosis? In this blog, Tamara Williams and Isabella Barclay who are working on the ADHD in girls and young women project at Cardiff University explore common myths surrounding the disorder.

A note about language: References to the ADHD in girls and young women research at Cardiff University include the experiences non-binary and AFAB individuals.

Additionally, the data discussed throughout talks about sex (male/ female) instead of gender as this is what most current data available includes. Read more about how Dr Joanna Martin aims to challenge this through this through her ongoing research.

Myth 1: Girls and women don’t have ADHD

Many people label ADHD as a ‘boys’ condition’. This is not true, anyone can have ADHD! However, ADHD is less commonly diagnosed in girls and women, with boys being diagnosed three times as often as girls.

ADHD may be less well recognised in girls and women than in boys and men, because they may display a slightly different set of behaviours.

Girls and women with ADHD reportedly display less hyperactive and impulsive behaviours and more inattentive behaviours than boys with ADHD. These behaviours are ‘less disruptive’, so their symptoms may be less likely to be noticed by others. As such, they may be less likely to be referred for an ADHD assessment.

Myth 2: Only children have ADHD

Many people think that ADHD only affects children. Whilst ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in childhood, many children with ADHD continue to have persistent symptoms throughout their lives, and it can also be diagnosed in adulthood.

It may appear that some children ‘grow out of their ADHD’, but this is not always the case, with two out of five people continuing to take ADHD medication into adulthood. Some people may learn to better manage their ADHD symptoms in adulthood.

Women often receive a delayed ADHD diagnosis in adulthood. Whilst this is in part due to the obstacles mentioned earlier, it may also be because girls may be more likely to mask and use coping strategies to hide their ADHD symptoms.

It is only when women are older and are faced with more independence that their ability to mask becomes more difficult, which can lead to an ADHD diagnosis referral.

Myth 3:  Social media is giving women ADHD

 On social media ADHD is a popularly discussed topic. Since the pandemic when people were spending more time on social media platforms, there has been a rise in individuals seeking ADHD diagnoses and increasing waiting times for assessment.

This has led to the myth that social media is giving girls and women ADHD.

The rise in ADHD diagnoses may be because girls and women using social media have recognised and related to people’s ADHD symptoms, prompting them to explore an appropriate diagnosis that can make sense of difficulties they have had for years.

Free Cheerful young diverse female friends laughing while watching funny video on smartphone during coffee break in cozy cafe Stock Photo

Although social media can spread misinformation about ADHD, it can be an extremely useful place for people to share their experiences of ADHD, raise awareness of ADHD symptoms that might not be currently well known, and shed light on how ADHD presents in girls and women.

So why are women only getting diagnosed in adulthood?

There has been a recent increase of ADHD diagnoses in adults, especially women. There are several possible reasons for this, including:

  1. Greater awareness and recognition of symptoms. As mentioned earlier, social media has increased awareness and helped the general population to better understand the presentation of ADHD in women.
  2. Self advocation. When young women reach adulthood, they can advocate for themselves and seek support for their struggles. This may come after dismissal of their difficulties as a child as their symptom profile did not look like the symptom profile in males.
  3. Loss of external scaffolding. When women reach adulthood, they may lose the structure of school and living within a family setting where they are often looked after (with things like paying rent, preparing meals). Such changes can begin the journey of realising they are unable to function the same way as their neurotypical peers. These struggles may then lead them to seek a diagnosis.

Why are current diagnostic practices missing out girls?

Current ADHD diagnostic criteria is based on the typical male presentation. Therefore, given that girls and women with ADHD may have a different symptom profile than boys and men, they are more likely to be ‘missed’ for a diagnosis.

Additionally, difficulties in managing or regulating emotions are commonly experienced by people with ADHD. However, they are not part of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, despite being noted in the earliest records of ADHD in 1798. The decision to not include such difficulties may be part of the reason why women, who are generally perceived as more emotional, are less likely to be recognised for an ADHD diagnosis.

Importance of a timely diagnosis

Many people with ADHD grow up with negative labels. Understanding that this is part of a neurodevelopmental condition, and not a personality flaw, can allow someone with ADHD to treat themselves with kindness and implement management strategies and treatments best tailored to suit their individual needs.

A timely diagnosis is important as in the long run it could reduce the development and impact of co-occurring mental health conditions.

Free Unrecognizable ethnic female therapist taking notes on clipboard while filling out form during psychological appointment with anonymous client lying on blurred background Stock Photo

Additionally, having an ADHD diagnosis can open doors to support, including through government schemes, individual learning plans at school, or universities. A timely diagnosis is important as this support earlier in life can lead to better educational outcomes and job prospects.

Find out more about the ADHD in young girls and women research being done at the NCMH on our study page. 

Isabella Barclay

Isabella Barclay is a PhD student researching ADHD in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric team at Cardiff University.

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