What ADHD Can Look Like

It took a long time to recognize that I have ADHD.

This is not an uncommon story for women and non-men with ADHD, Autism, and a variety of spectrum disorders. Symptoms are often excused as being a lack of discipline or an influence of their gender. Interestingly, many women who are later diagnosed or discover that they are autistic get a diagnosis for ADHD fist.

In school, one of the most common complaints heard from teachers was that I was too chatty. I liked to talk a lot, and very quickly. Sometimes people couldn’t understand me because I spoke so fast, and yet I would hear time and time again how bright I was or how articulate. I would ask endless questions, of everyone. I could never seem to learn that whole “don’t talk to strangers” lesson. In fact even now I find myself talking to strangers. When I left for university, my parents were surprised by how many people around town seemed to know me. While my frequent conversations with strangers bothered my mother endlessly, even into my adult years, so often the people I talked to would end up spilling their stories to me. There are times when one question leads to me seemingly learning a person’s entire life story.

At school, my focus would begin to wander a few months into the school year. I would start of the school year strong, then plummet towards the middle of the year, and then make back some of the marks towards the end. I followed this pattern throughout all my schooling.

Homework was difficult. If it was too easy, I wouldn’t pay complete attention and make inattentive mistakes. If it was too difficult, it was hard to stay focused and still long enough to understand. The longer it took, the more anxious I would get and the more difficult it would become to focus. I felt like I was unintelligent, and often my dad helping me with certain work would turn into screaming matches until suddenly something clicked and it all made sense. (Strange confession, I actually enjoyed those screaming matches with my father, feeling a strange sort of pride that I was the only one who could make him raise his voice. Sometimes I think he enjoyed it too.)

I found a lot of the books for school extremely tedious. I remember the teachers complaining about the fact that I mentioned that I preferred English books to French books. I was at a French school, so I can see why they had a problem with that, but no one considered that my problem might not be with the language, but rather with the fact that the French material was selected for me, while the English material I got to choose myself.

The stories I chose myself were more engaging, more enjoyable. They didn’t follow the same patterns that every “learn to read” type story did. Where the story doesn’t seem to matter so much as they were looking for excuses to use specific words.

I couldn’t always sit still, and until I became completely overwhelmed with a passion for reading, I frequently had trouble with boredom. I remember how often I went to bug my mom to help me come up with something to do, only to be told that I had to learn to entertain myself. Even after I started reading voraciously, there were days when I couldn’t focus my attention on any one thing long enough to get absorbed and so would find myself flitting from thing to thing, until finally I settled for doing multiple things at once, one of them often including watching tv. When this happened, my parents saw only that I was in front of the TV and complained that I was turning into a couch potato.

Even now, it’s not unusual for me to read, write, draw, or play around on Facebook while watching something.

In high school, I noticed a funny trend. Classes where I doodled during the lectures where on average the classes with my best grades. I noticed that I had an easier time listening and absorbing the lecture. I noticed that working in public places like Starbucks was also good for my productivity.

My biggest problem was self-starting.

Once I got into a project, once I hit the zone, I can sometimes keep going for hours to the exclusion of all else. There have been times where I’ve gone entire days without eating, simply because I didn’t notice the time passing. The lights in the room I was working with would be off, and it wouldn’t be until it got dark enough that I had trouble seeing that I would notice that night had fallen. Sometimes it only happened once someone else turned on the light for me. I used to joke that I was the opposite of ADHD, that I didn’t lack focus, I would get hyper focused. The teacher would say something, and unless I had just enough of a distraction to let me keep paying attention, I would end up focusing so hard on thinking about something the teacher would say, that I would miss the rest of the class.

I would get in trouble sometimes from my parents who would be talking to me while I was reading or writing, and notice that I wasn’t listening. They thought I was ignoring them, but actually, I had no idea they were talking to me. I was too absorbed in what I was doing. Similarly, even though I could hear sounds like someone writing in the next room, and other things that are usually not noticeable to most people, someone talking to me directly or the tv, would feel like it was too quiet. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the problem was processing. It would take a few seconds sometimes for my brain to parse what was being said to be as it tried to shift from one focus to the next. The result being that I felt like I hadn’t heard what was said.

I realized this when I realized that my TV volume was consistently lower on shows with subtitles, yet I felt like I was hearing everything.

Despite enjoying my activities though, actually sitting down and doing them was a different issue. I can be burning with the desire to write out a scene or to work on something I know is important, but try as I might it is like there is a wall between me and the work I want to be doing.

This was also true with homework. Only the work that I knew would get checked would get done. Try as I might, I found it nearly impossible to work on a project before the night before it was do. Strangely, the few times I did start work ahead of time, the final project seemed to score lower grades then the work I procrastinated.

My parents used to joke that whenever I started work on an extra credit project or a book, that I would never finish it because I would design the cover and then lose interest.

Now I know where all of this came from. I have ADHD. Turns out hyper focus ADHD is also a thing.

What’s more, just a few weeks ago I also found out that I bear many of the hallmarks of Autism as it presents in women and people who are non-male. In fact apparently some of my activist friends were surprised I didn’t already know. My fear of appropriation means it will take me some time to identify as such, but it explains a lot.

Ever since coming to terms with my ADHD, I’ve been more aware of people around me who follow the same patterns. Many of us are undiagnosed. Many of us struggle with self-worth issues stemming from the problems caused by our lack of diagnosis.

Learning how to work with our ADHD, learning how to recognize both the power of our minds in addition to overcoming the challenges faced by trying to function in a predominantly neurotypicals or at least neurotypicals-centric society, at an early age is easier. Learning techniques younger means less years of facing anxiety, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and perceived worthlessness.

There’s nothing actually wrong with our minds. It’s a different way of thinking, not a wrong one. But we live in a world that prioritizes and moralizes certain thinking styles over others. Once again most of the disability is caused by other people and the lack of accessibility.

Children with ADHD are curious, they are enthusiastic, and excitable. These are all fantastic things, but our expression of these traits is often punished. For many of us, our interests and coping mechanisms are mocked. Our medication use is shamed. And our enthusiasm is slowly and sometimes not so slowly beaten out of is. If you’re otherwise disabled, non-male, a person of colour, a person living in poverty, then it is all the more likely that you will be punished and denigrated for how you think.

ADHD can look like enthusiasm and joy or it can look like anxiety and self-doubt. Ultimately, it is up to schools, parents, and society which it ends up being.

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