Late Diagnosis, Little Treatment: What ADHD Looks Like in Girls and Women

Many young girls and women with ADHD — most with inattentive symptoms — are being drowned out by loud, hyperactive boys who demonstrate the condition's stereotypical behavior. Learn how to recognize symptoms and turn around this unfair unbalance for your daughter or yourself.

Gender Gap, Part 2

Another reason that girls go undetected for so long has to do with how differently each gender approaches school. Dr. Quinn offers this example: “A male and female student with ADHD are assigned a long-term project. They each put off the work for weeks. Then, the night before the project is due, each remembers the deadline. Rather than attempt to get the work done, the boy decides to watch back-to-back episodes of SpongeBob. Meanwhile, the girl freaks out and tries to make a perfect project overnight. (Perfectionism is another common behavior in ADHD girls.) She demands that her mother help her while she stays up until 1 a.m. to finish her work. When she hands in the assignment the next day, the teacher has no clue that it was done at the last minute.”

Girls seem compelled to get their schoolwork done because our culture encourages them to be more socially conscious. They want to please more than boys, and they’re expected to do well in school.

Because grades K through six aren’t as challenging as higher grades, a girl with undiagnosed ADHD might do fine in elementary school — and then falter. “In middle and high school, the attentional demands are greater for a student, so she can’t get by working at 50% efficiency,” says Andrew Adesman, M.D., director of the division of behavioral and developmental disorders at Schneider’s Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, and member of the national board of directors for CHADD. “And because the kids in junior high and high school more often change classes, teachers don’t have the time to get to know the kids and spot problems.”

Some girls also compensate by developing strategies that mask their ADHD. As mentioned earlier, it might be perfectionism. For instance, a girl might spend hours taking notes on each chapter she’s being tested on in order to assure a good grade. Or she might become obsessive-compulsive, checking and rechecking her backpack to make sure she has everything.

ADHD gender differences also show up outside the classroom. Research shows that girls with ADHD may be rejected more often by their peers than boys. The main reason is that, compared to boys’, girls’ friendships require greater sophistication and more maintenance. “Two boys can meet on the playground and start digging a hole to China with their shovels, and they’re instant friends. Friendship among girls is more complex, even at young ages. It requires picking up on social cues and bonding,” says Dr. Quinn.

With tendencies toward impulsivity, hyperactivity, and forgetfulness, it can be hard to keep your mouth closed, not to constantly interrupt, or to remember your best friend’s birthday. And when everyone in the group is admiring Jessica’s new earrings and the girl with ADHD blurts out something totally unrelated, the other girls look at her and wonder where she’s coming from. This kind of social awkwardness makes it difficult for a girl to feel good about herself and sustain relationships.

Unfortunately, these signs often aren’t enough to suggest ADHD. In the case of 14-year-old Danielle Cardali of North Babylon, New York, it took two evaluations before her teacher and parents were able to pinpoint why her grades remained low. Being classified with ADHD in fourth grade, she was entitled to 45 minutes a day of one-on-one teacher time in a resource room. But real improvement didn’t come until seventh grade, when she was prescribed Strattera and Concerta. “After that first quarter on the medication, I got high C’s and low B’s,” says Cardali. “I seemed to have a better understanding of what was going on in class.”

In some cases, a parent will stumble upon ADHD after a learning disability is discovered. (They often co-exist, which is why it’s important when testing for one also to screen for the other.) That was the case with 7-year-old Allison Isidore of Montclair, New Jersey. Her mom, Liz Birge, had an opportunity to see her daughter at work in the classroom for 45 minutes once a week, when she volunteered to assist in a writing workshop. Liz discovered that her first-grader was having a great deal of trouble matching sounds to letters and that she showed no interest in trying to write. Testing revealed that Allison has both a learning disability and ADHD.

Getting help

If parents suspect that their daughter has ADHD (or a learning disability), Drs. Quinn and Wigal urge them not to wait, even if teachers haven’t expressed concern. As mentioned earlier, teachers usually look for hyperactivity, disorganization, or forgetfulness as the signs of ADHD before recommending an evaluation. But the way ADHD often expresses itself in girls — excessive talking, poor self-esteem, worrying, perfectionism, risk-taking, and nosiness — is seldom read as such [see What ADHD Looks Like in Girls].

Your daughter’s pediatrician can do an evaluation (if your daughter is an adolescent, find out first if the doctor is comfortable working with teens). Make sure her doctor takes a thorough medical history (including family history, due to the high heritability of ADHD). The doctor should also work with your child’s school to obtain more information about her behaviors. “And since adolescents are a great source of information about their own experience, encourage a teen to talk directly with her doctor,” advises Dr. Wigal.

Ultimately, for a girl suffering from ADHD, an official diagnosis can be welcome news. “Everyone presumes that a diagnosis of ADHD is a stigma,” says Dr. Quinn. “In fact, 56% of the girls in our survey said that they felt better after finally having a name for what they felt. Only 15% said they felt worse. For most, it was a relief to find out they weren’t lazy, crazy, or stupid.”

More good news: Parents of girls diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to seek treatment than parents of boys diagnosed with ADHD, because only the more severe cases are diagnosed. “Girls may be at a slight advantage over boys in one sense,” wrote Quinn and Wigal in the Harris survey paper. “Once they are suspected of having ADHD, their parents tend to be more willing to seek medical advice.” And that bodes well for girls.

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TAGS: ADHD Symptoms, Myths About ADHD

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