ADHD in Women

ADHD is Different in Women

How to recognize the unique signs and symptoms of attention deficit disorder in women.

Diagnosing ADHD in Women: Recognizing ADHD Symptoms
Diagnosing ADHD in Women: Recognizing ADHD Symptoms

Somewhere along the way toward an egalitarian society, we lost sight of the fact that women are different from men. Likewise, recognizing and diagnosing ADHD in women isn’t the same as it is for men.

Applying male ADHD symptoms — like aggression and hyperactivity — toward a female with ADHD doesn’t provide an accurate frame of reference for diagnosis.

Noticing the Differences

Girls with ADHD don’t usually stand out in a classroom. “They’re the ones sitting in the back, looking out the windows, twirling their hair,” says Terry Matlen, the vice president of the National Attention Deficit Disorder Association and host of ADDconsults.com “People write them off as space cadets.” As far as their ADHD is concerned, these girls are neglected children. They grow up to become neglected women.

Sari Solden, whose book Women with Attention Deficit Disorder is a must read for any woman with ADHD, talked about this neglect in an interview conducted at an ADDA Conference. “A significant number of women with ADHD go undiagnosed because, first of all, most women were never hyperactive and didn’t cause problems for anybody, so of course they weren’t picked up.”

According to Solden, women who have ADHD are misdiagnosed and treated for something other than an attention deficit. “Even if they go to their doctor or complain to their therapist of feeling overwhelmed or disorganized, they’re much more likely to be given a diagnosis of a mood disorder instead of ADHD.”

A woman who has ADHD may also have a mood disorder, as many people who have ADHD also live with a mood disorder or other condition. But treating the mood disorder is only part of the solution. Once the mood disorder is under control, she is still left with untreated ADHD.

Living With It

The first step is to get an accurate diagnosis from someone who understands ADHD in women. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health care professionals can make the diagnosis. Ask how many adult patients with ADHD they have and how many of those are women. What treatments have they tried and how successful have those treatments been?

Keep in mind that ADHD can occur along with other disorders, such as a mood disorder or PMS. Ask about these possible co-existing conditions, also known as ‘comorbidities,’ and how much experience the doctor has in treating someone who has more than one diagnosis.

Kathleen G. Nadeau offers other suggestions about living with ADHD in her book Adventures in Fast Forward (Brunner/Mazel). Her first suggestion is that you give yourself a break. Women are taught to be “pleasers,” and often put unrealistic demands on themselves as they try to balance family, career and other responsibilities. Accept the fact that houses get messy and some things don’t get done. Just do the best you can. Enlist the help of other family members for household chores.

One step towards eliminating the need for Superwoman is to simplify your life. Decide what is important and what isn’t. Look for ways to reduce commitments that drain both time and energy. Learn how to say “no,” or, at the very least, learn how to say “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me.”

Christine A. Adamec talks about learning to pick and choose your responsibilities in her book Moms With ADD (Taylor Publishing, 2000). “When anyone asks you to perform any task that is due after today and that requires more than five minutes, either say ‘no’ or hold yourself back from saying ‘yes.’ Instead, say that you must think about it. Resist the intense pressure that can sometimes emanate from others, who say that you’ve ‘always’ done this before, that it’s easy, it won’t take much time, and so forth. No matter what, tell the person you must think about it and let them know.”

This technique gives you time to actually decide whether or not you can — or want to — do this. If you decide that you can do it, then say “yes.” If not, then call the person and tell them that you won’t be able to do whatever it was that they wanted you to do for them. Give yourself permission to say “No.”

Working Through It All

Most women have a lot of pressure, working a full-time day job and then coming home to a second full-time job of caring for others. For women who have ADHD, this workload can be especially stressful. But, with proper ADHD diagnosis and treatment, you can learn to manage both your home and your ADHD.

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