As I learn about my ADHD brain and explore my gender identity, I wonder: How does ADHD impact folks of different genders?
Receiving an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis at 28 years old was incredibly validating and life changing.
Now, I finally understand why I cried from overwhelm during every test in elementary school — emotional dysregulation. I also know why I would procrastinate on my college and work assignments until the very last minute — time management challenges.
My diagnosis even lead me to understand why I once drove 7 hours to meet someone from a dating app for the first time — impulsivity.
I pick at my skin and rip off my nail polish every day (fidgeting). I can’t read books (short attention span). I won’t remember something if it’s not written down (poor memory). And I’ve never been able to read instructions or follow verbal directions (information processing issues).
It turns out that I’m not broken, even though I felt this way my whole life and still do sometimes. These were just symptoms of an undiagnosed mental health condition.
But because I wasn’t constantly squirming in chairs or distracted by squirrels and shiny objects like the stereotypical ADHD-er, I internalized these challenges and carried on as best I could.
This experience is common among many people living with ADHD. And it seems that ADHD may impact folks differently depending on their gender, especially those in female bodies.
“The biggest difference is the lack of obvious physical hyperactivity in most girls, especially by the time they reach middle school or older,” says Katy Weber, founder of Women & ADHD, LLC and host of the weekly podcast Women & ADHD.
It’s common for girls to have inattentive or combined type ADHD. Unlike the symptoms typically seen in boys with ADHD, girls’ symptoms are likely to be internalized and more subtle, such as:
- chronic disorganization
- difficulty starting or completing tasks
- difficulty with focus and organization
- trouble listening
- challenges following directions
Weber notes that inattentive symptoms are usually overlooked by teachers because girls are less likely to be physically disruptive in classrooms.
“They can do well in school because they’re generally quite bright, can do well on tests, and their desire to behave and succeed will drive them to compensate for their internalized symptoms and ‘hide’ their disorganization,” she adds.
A 2010 study suggests that compared to adolescent boys with ADHD, adolescent girls with ADHD may deal with:
- low self-efficacy
- poor coping strategies
- higher rates of depression and anxiety
“It’s important to remember that when you’re a woman with ADHD, self-doubt is inextricably woven throughout your life from an early age,” reminds Weber. “You’ve [likely] received messages that you’re wrong, dumb, lazy, [and] inconsiderate your whole life, so it’s natural to feel confused or overwhelmed when it comes to your ADHD itself.
“Many of us worry that a diagnosis might just be us making excuses for our behavior,” she adds. “I say, if you’re constantly questioning whether this is ADHD or not, then that’s a good sign that you have ADHD!”
No studies currently exist on gender nonconformity and ADHD.
So, I asked Weber whether she believes ADHD impacts people assigned female at birth (AFAB), nonbinary folks, and gender-nonconforming individuals differently. And if so, how?
Though difficult to answer definitively without existing studies and research, Weber’s own interviews with nonbinary and trans people with ADHD made it clear that each person’s childhood experiences with the condition were quite different based on what gender they were socialized as early in life.
According to Weber’s anecdotal theorizing, physical hyperactive tendencies in girls may be commonly internalized and expressed as inattentive type ADHD because girls are often socialized to value likability, cooperation, and “well-behaved” temperaments. But more research is needed to support these claims.
Stigma and misconceptions surrounding women with ADHD — and ADHD in general — are not only super common but also harmful.
Some of the most popular stereotypes include:
- women don’t have ADHD because they aren’t physically “hyper,” or are told that they can’t have ADHD for this reason
- doing well in school means you can’t have ADHD
- if you didn’t have ADHD as a child, you can’t have it as an adult
- you don’t have ADHD if you don’t “look” or “act” like you do
These misunderstandings commonly lead to misdiagnoses, especially in girls and women.
“ADHD is so misunderstood, and the acronym is so misrepresentative of the common traits and symptoms among girls and women that girls are often overlooked and not diagnosed,” Weber explains.
And when ADHD isn’t recognized in childhood, it’s often difficult to get diagnosed as an adult, she adds.
Instead of being correctly diagnosed with ADHD, Weber — along with many other women — typically are diagnosed with a different mental health condition at first, such as:
- mood disorders, including bipolar disorder
As a result, women who are misdiagnosed often continue looking for answers in the wrong places and receiving treatments that don’t work for their ADHD symptoms.
Impacts of correct diagnosis
“An ADHD diagnosis can feel like an absolute revelation at this point,” says Weber. “It’s often the explanation for so many seemingly random struggles in a woman’s life. It can be overwhelming once you start connecting the dots.”
This is exactly how I felt when I was finally diagnosed with ADHD. I always thought I had anxiety or depression growing up, but I was probably just anxious and depressed from living with undiagnosed ADHD that wreaked havoc on all areas of my life.
Receiving that diagnosis validated me. It freed me from thinking I was a failure of a human who couldn’t do simple things that everyone else seemed to do with ease — when, in fact, I’m not like them. I’m doing my best as someone who’s neurodivergent in an ableist society that wasn’t built for people like me.
Regardless of your gender identity, ADHD often presents unique challenges. But there are groups and resources people with ADHD can lean into to find relief and community.
These resources can be great starting points for people who are undiagnosed, too. Weber encourages people to “follow their gut” if you relate to other people’s experiences and testimonials of living with ADHD.
Weber believes that one of the most effective ways to “treat” your ADHD is to learn more about it and realize that you’re not lazy or inadequate.
“Many of us have spent our lives feeling like everyone else read the manual, and we’re left wondering ‘what’s wrong with me?’ because we can’t figure out how to do something.”
According to Weber, it can be vital for people with ADHD to accept that there isn’t anything wrong with you. People with ADHD simply think and learn differently, and that’s OK.
“Once we can embrace that belief, we can start leaning into our strengths and advocating for ourselves and each other within the neurodivergent community,” she adds.
Support groups and media
Connecting with other folks who live with ADHD can feel validating and healing as well.
You’re not alone in your diagnosis, and you can learn more about ADHD by:
- joining support groups, in person or online
- reading online discussion boards
- listening to podcasts, like Weber’s “ADHD & Women podcast“
- following ADHD content creators like Dr. Sasha Hamdani on Instagram (@thepsychdoctormd) and Jessica McCabe on YouTube
Therapy and medication
Having the right team of mental health professionals can make a huge difference for people with ADHD. Working with a therapist can help you understand your brain.
And sometimes, being prescribed the right medication can do wonders to manage symptoms.
I haven’t tried ADHD medication yet, but I wonder what life will look like if or when I do. For now, my treatment plan leans into other coping strategies that align with my personal needs, including:
- ADHD supplements
- self-care and lifestyle changes
There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you live with ADHD. People with ADHD are not lazy or broken — and we’re certainly not alone.
There’s a whole community of neurodivergent folks and ADHDers out there who share similar challenges. If you ever feel lonely and you’re looking to connect with one of them, feel free to reach out and say hi.
However, it’s common for women to go years before getting a correct ADHD diagnosis. Girls typically exhibit more subtle symptoms than boys with the condition and are often misdiagnosed with a different mental health condition before discovering their ADHD.
And though more research needs to be done, many nonbinary, trans, and gender nonconforming folks with ADHD say their childhood experiences with the condition differ greatly from their experiences in adulthood, depending on the gender they were socialized as early in life.
A correct ADHD diagnosis can be extremely validating. Now that I understand myself better, I’m more aware of the challenges that I face, and I feel relief in knowing why I am the way I am.
If you think you may be living with ADHD, talking with a therapist can be a vital first step in your journey. Check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.