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They Denied Her ADHD Because She Was Disciplined, Studious… and Indian

“The accommodations coordinator was basically assuming my parents forced me to take advanced courses. He was valuing my teacher’s observations more than my doctor’s opinion and my personal struggles. I knew if I was a white kid, he would not have made those comments to me.”

Vector of a sad teen girl sitting on the floor, student with backpack.

During lessons, Eeshani doodled rainbows and flowers on her notebook, using funky-colored gel pens to take the dryness out of note-taking. Her brain wandered during lectures even though she looked at the board; no hint of her inner struggle for the outside world to see.

At night, she had to study the material taught in class for hours. During a home study session, she could focus… but on the wrong tasks. If she had assignments due on Wednesday and Friday, she’d start Friday’s first. She observed that her peers spent less time studying than she did and earned higher marks. This hurt her self-esteem. Her inner critic told her that she was stupid.

“I would have felt fine getting average grades if I knew I did not put in effort, but I was doing just that,” she said. “When my friends studied for an hour or so, they would get a high A-grade; I would study for four or five hours and receive a low B. It didn’t make sense to me why these things seemed easier for others.”

This Is What ADHD Looks Like?

To many people, a “struggling” student is the class clown or an emotionally unstable child, usually a male — and typically not of Asian descent. A loud, boisterous student who has side conversations during lectures, blurts out answers, doesn’t raise their hand, cannot sit still, talks back to teachers, gets into fights, and has an extensive incident file — this is the stereotypical ADHD poster child.

Eeshani doesn’t fit that profile at all. Those who best know her say she’s reserved and quiet around people she doesn’t know well but becomes a chatterbox once comfortable. When communicating, she does “zone out fast” and miss what people say to her. She prefers not to work in groups for class projects because she doesn’t like to speak up when other students don’t pitch in.

[Read: “I’m Not Supposed to Have ADHD”]

Eeshani often skipped exams and napped at home, but she wasn’t playing hooky. She experienced anxiety when taking in-person tests with other students.

“I hated taking tests with students around me in complete silence,” she said. “I’d be so distracted by the noises of pencil taps or feet tapping, so I’d stay home on test days so I could be alone in a room to make up the test.”

Teachers didn’t mind her making up tests at first, but later observed that it was a pattern for her, which raised some suspicion. It’s not that Eeshani neglected to study, either.

“I’d be up until about 4 or 5 a.m., studying,” she said. “I would wake up so tired, but not feel ready for the test, so I’d ask my parents if I could skip that day. Friends would text me asking where I was, and I would say, ‘I can’t take the test.’ I didn’t care if they talked about me, because I did this for me.”

[Read: “What It Feels Like Living with Undiagnosed ADHD”]

To her family, Eeshani was independent and mature. While she may have appeared to be just another studious Indian child on the surface, she struggled hard.

“When I would read, I’d read all the words on the page but have truly no idea what I just read, and I’d have to keep re-reading until I could pay proper attention,” she said.

The Moment Her Struggles Became Undeniable

One night, Eeshani burst into her parent’s room crying at 3 a.m. because she couldn’t focus on her study material. Shortly thereafter, her mother called the pediatrician as she requested. The doctor instructed her parents to fill out a form with a checklist, and have Eeshani’s teachers each do so, too.

When she visited her doctor, Eeshani did not imagine that she’d be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). She simply thought she would receive more “studying tips.”

During the appointment, the doctor asked Eeshani about her family health history. When she mentioned that she had an aunt who dealt with anxiety, the doctor suggested that Eeshani may have anxiety as well.

The usually-reserved Eeshani was not afraid to speak up. She told the doctor that she did not think she had an anxiety disorder, but rather extreme focusing difficulties, particularly with tasks that she felt others her age could complete more easily. After reading the teachers’ completed forms, the doctor felt that their observations of Eeshani were “normal.”

“The pediatrician gave me a differential diagnosis of anxiety and instructed me to visit a neurologist to rule out the possibility of ADHD,” Eeshani said.

She Spoke a Truth Everyone Refused to Hear

Eeshani began to advocate for herself at school. She informed a school counselor and accommodation coordinator about the pediatrician’s findings, which led to a grueling ordeal which included a counselor, coordinator, her parents, and all her teachers.

Eeshani’s parents explained her struggles as well the neurologist’s and doctor’s opinions. The teachers shared their opinions about her work ethic and academic performance. One teacher concluded that calculus is a difficult subject, so it’s natural that a student would struggle a bit. Another suggested that she attend early morning help sessions.

“What teachers did not understand was that it wouldn’t matter if I attended the help sessions,” she said. “I knew the course content; I just couldn’t focus, and that was something they could not change unless they understood.”

Eeshani’s accommodations coordinator said that she needed to attend the help sessions. He stated that everyone has anxiety, and he agreed with the teacher that calculus is a tough subject. Eeshani was disappointed to leave the meeting without an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which gives specialized instruction to students with disabilities, or a 504 Plan that helps provide accommodations to students with disabilities.

“The accommodations coordinator told me that my poor academic performance is nothing out of the ordinary and could result from my choice of taking higher-level courses due to academic pressure,” she said. “I knew right away what he meant. He was basically assuming my parents forced me to take advanced courses. He was valuing my teacher’s observations more than my doctor’s opinion and my personal struggles. I knew if I was a white kid, he would not have made those comments to me.”

What’s more, Eeshani struggled in both AP and regular classes.

“The regular classes were easier, but my grades remained the same as in the AP, and I was expecting them to go up,” she said.

The ADHD Validation She Was Nearly Denied Due to Stereotypes

At a neurologist’s office, Eeshani took a computer simulation test. Her results showed “clear signs of inattentiveness” compared to a control group that also took that test. She performed well at the start of the test, but her focus level started dropping off later. This was the validation she so badly needed, and then she was sent to a psychiatrist.

“I used to think that I just was not smart, but I noticed that I knew so much course content, but when assessed with simple multiple-choice questions, I couldn’t convey that,” she said.

Eeshani visited a psychiatrist as the neurologist recommended. The psychiatrist diagnosed her with ADHD and OCPD, which is marked by preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.

“He told me that OCPD includes behaviors such as wanting to be in a certain environment or wanting to be ambitious and high-achieving to set goals made for myself, but while remaining independent,” she said.

She began taking stimulant medications — first Vyvanse, and then switched to Adderall XR for insurance reasons. Her psychiatrist, who is also Indian American, applauded her parents for bringing her in. He said many South Asian families don’t take their kids to psychiatrists, which inhibits proper diagnosis.

“I told my psych how my school would treat me,” she said. “He didn’t look shocked; he just understood and was non-judgmental. I see him every three months. He taught me that, because my ADHD is severe, I cannot take a break with medicine as it is also helpful for completing chores and tasks in daily life, rather than just school.”

Before her diagnosis and ever imagining she had ADHD, Eeshani once heard kids at school make jokes about Adderall. When she was first prescribed Adderall, she was nervous about potential side effects and what other people may think of her if they knew she was using it. She feared that her accomplishments may be viewed differently.

“My mom and dad were happy that there was a solution once I got diagnosed and received medicine, but they had to remind me that my medicines don’t drive my success,” she said. “I do.”

This article was excerpted from the forthcoming book by Mrinal Gokhale titled, Saaya Unveiled: South Asian Mental Health Spotlighted, available on Kindle now and in paperback in May 2021.

Model Minority Myth: Next Steps

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