Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the world’s most common childhood disorders, with an estimated prevalence of 5.29%. It is also a highly misunderstood neurodevelopmental condition.
Whilst many associate it with hyperactivity and overmedication, particularly in young boys, ADHD encompasses a wide range of symptoms. ADHD is also being increasingly diagnosed in adults and girls.
ADHD is diagnosed three times more frequently in boys than girls. Not long ago, however, this figure was closer to 10 to 1. Although the margins are narrowing, by adulthood the level of diagnoses across the sexes is roughly the same - so to what can we attribute the lower rates identified in childhood?
One potential explanation is that the symptoms observed in girls and boys can be quite different. Boys tend to exhibit the more “obvious” signs of ADHD such as hyperactivity and conduct disorder, whereas the difficulties experienced by girls tend to be attentional such as daydreaming in class.
For this reason, ADHD in girls may not be as obvious in an educational setting and therefore fall under the radar.
The hyperactive symptoms more commonly displayed by boys are more likely to be problematic in the home or classroom, and may therefore more quickly draw the attention of teachers, special needs officers etc.
Girls on the other hand, tend to experience the difficulties of ADHD in a more internal manner. It has also been argued that as girls are socialised by society to behave in a more reserved manner that they are better than boys at covering up symptoms.
There is also limited public knowledge in terms of the different ways ADHD may express itself among the sexes.
So in what ways may ADHD look different in girls than boys?
An interesting paper by Rucklidge (2010) explored gender differences in ADHD. In a review of previous studies, she found a number of differences in a variety of areas.
This is potentially the most widely recognised symptom of ADHD and is the main symptom that boys tend to exhibit more than their female counterparts. Children with ADHD may find it difficult to sit still and may also exhibit impulsivity for example non- stop talking, making inappropriate comments and being impatient.
Although many children may be high-energy, in order to meet the clinical criteria for these facet of ADHD the hyperactivity and impulsivity demonstrated must be impacting the child’s life and have been doing so for six months or more.
Inattentive ADHD is that which leads to trouble focusing and being easily distracted. Children with ADHD are daydreamers who get bored easily. Whilst this could easily be said of many children, in the case of those with inattentive ADHD this leads to trouble completing schoolwork and avoiding tasks requiring focus. Children with ADHD may also be highly disorganised with messy rooms.
Again, whilst many of these are common childhood traits, those with ADHD will suffer both at home and at school due to the severity of these symptoms.
Girls display attentional ADHD more so than boys.
Tactile Defensiveness (TD) refers to both behaviours and emotional responses which are out of proportion to tactile (relating to sense of touch) stimuli. Children with TD may be overwhelmed by sensory overload and in extreme cases may find everyday activities such as having hair brushed or eating cold food intolerable.
TD is commonly associated with ADHD and is exhibited more frequently by females.
Social and Psychological Functioning:
Studies have also found some marked differences in these areas between girls and boys. Boys have been found to be more aggressive, particularly with peers. Interestingly, it has been found that girls suffer from lower self-esteem and demonstrate poorer coping strategies than boys.
This could be due to the more internalised nature of female ADHD but could also be the result of later diagnosis.
Effects of late diagnosis
Early identification and intervention are obviously important in terms of determining future outcomes. Children who receive support at home and at school are much more likely to manage their condition into the future.
Unfortunately, at present ADHD tends to be diagnosed later in girls than in boys. Until recently, the American Psychiatric Association diagnosis manual specified 7 as the cut- off age for symptoms to be evident. Although this has recently been increased to 12, it is quite possible that the narrow age- range previously provided prevented some diagnoses from being made.
Some studies estimate that as many as 50- 75 percent of girls with ADHD are not diagnosed.
Studies have found that both men and women diagnosed as adults struggle in a wide array of domains and have lower self- esteem, poorer coping strategies and higher levels of depression. In addition adults identified with ADHD later in life tend to have negative attributions about themselves.
The lack of a diagnosis may lead individuals to having their difficulties attributed to laziness or lack of ability both by themselves and others.
As of yet however, no study has compared those diagnosed during adulthood with those diagnosed during childhood.
So what should you look out for in order to spot the signs of ADHD in girls?
The following signs may indicate that ADHD is going unnoticed:
If this sounds familiar it may be worth speaking to a GP or therapist in order to further investigate the basis of these problems. Given the lack of awareness regarding girls with ADHD, and the detrimental impact of later diagnosis, it is important not to let girls with ADHD continue to fall under the radar.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Hamed, A. M., Kauer, A. J., & Stevens, H. E. (2015). Why the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder matters. Frontiers in psychiatry , 6 .
Rucklidge, J. J. (2010). Gender differences in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America , 33 (2), 357-373.