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“The Double Discrimination I Face: Living with Undiagnosed ADHD as a Person of Color”

“At an ultra-white French-immersion school in a primarily white city in Canada, I was already different enough. Undiagnosed ADHD only amplified my otherness.”

In one of my earliest memories, I’m at a restaurant with my parents talking excitedly about something, only to be sharply shushed. “Listen!” my parents say to me. “Do you hear anyone else talking as loudly as you are?”

It was the first time I learned that I was expected to behave like everyone else, and that I was falling short at that. That same lesson would show up throughout my childhood; I was in constant trouble at home for doing things that felt out of my control — things I would only realize many years later were symptoms of undiagnosed ADHD. It was the same situation in school, except the color of my skin made me an even larger target.

A Visible Minority with Undiagnosed ADHD

At an ultra-white French-immersion school in a primarily white city in Canada, I was already different enough. Undiagnosed ADHD only amplified my otherness.

I was told my hair was “not normal,” so my mother straightened it with harsh chemicals. I looked slightly more palatable, but I paid a high price by damaging my hair and scalp.

I will never forget the day we were instructed to draw portraits. One of my classmates looked at the dark face I drew and said, “Eww, why would you make your person brown?” I heard comments like these all the time.

[Read: “I Could Have Been Myself for So Much Longer”]

Every stereotype I didn’t fulfill was an excuse for more mockery. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been at the receiving end of comments about my lack of rhythm or inability to dance. (I later learned that clumsiness is common in ADHD.) I still remember my teammates’ disappointment when I failed to live up to the expectation that my Blackness would make me automatically good at sports. (In retrospect, I can see that failure in athletics was less about raw ability and more about my inability to understand the rules of any sport.)

My peers called me “weird” because I struggled to read social cues. My teachers frequently relocated my desk to the hallway to stop me from talking to my classmates, or to drown out the sound of my voice, as I often had to read aloud to myself to understand the material.

Why My ADHD Was Overlooked

It’s said that children with ADHD receive 20,000 negative messages about themselves by age 10 — likely far more than their neurotypical counterparts. This negative messaging did not abate as I got older. Undiagnosed ADHD in high school meant I rushed through assignments, crammed for tests, and often lost my schoolwork. My friends teased me for being “random” and hinted that I was of lower intelligence due to my struggles in school. And as a visible minority, my teachers and others were quick to view me as rebellious, lazy, irresponsible, messy, and rude — and couldn’t fathom that I was struggling with a neurodevelopmental condition.

ADHD is highly hereditary and (while far be it from me to diagnose others) my parents, also distracted and forgetful, didn’t see anything “off” about the challenges I faced just to manage everyday life. My academic career was certainly not helped by the fact that they couldn’t help me keep track of my assignments, or drop me off at school on time.

[Read: Why ADHD Is Different for People of Color]

I know stigma in my community partially explains why I didn’t receive help early on. My family also saw mental health issues as spiritual problems to be prayed about, not as problems that required medical treatment. General distrust of the medical system, which has historically been discriminatory and harmful toward visible minorities, was also a factor.

Older, Wiser, and Hopeful

As an adult — and finally armed with the knowledge of my diagnosis — I may be wiser and more capable, but the challenges of being a neurodivergent person of color are ever present. Some people perceive me as too loud, talkative, irresponsible, lazy, or “out there.” I still hear ignorant comments about my ethnic background, and I’ve been the victim of racial stereotyping and discrimination at work. I’ve also been dismissed from positions after I disclosed my ADHD diagnosis.

Experiencing double discrimination is not easy. Still, I have hope that current and future generations will work to ensure that people like me are given the same opportunities that others have, from early diagnosis and treatment to unconditional acceptance and respect.

Racial Discrimination and Undiagnosed ADHD: Next Steps

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