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ADHD among women and girls goes underdiagnosed

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Norwalk, CT (WFSB) — Parents know that spring is an especially busy time of the year.

There are end-of-year concerts, proms, graduations, along with all of the regular stuff like getting children out the door on time to school, going to meetings, conferences and getting children to practices and lessons.

While most moms figure out a way to handle it all successfully, some can’t. Their brains just are not built that way.

Some, however, could suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is an underdiagnosed issue for women and girls.

Kate Jarvis is a mom who does a lot of juggling. Jarvis is a native of South Africa who lives in Norwalk with twin girls who are in kindergarten, so life is understandably hectic: “You know … getting their lunches packed or getting their sports kits packed and ready,” she said.

Trying to keep everything on track has been a challenge for her, she said, in a way that is different than it is for other moms.

“You know … we’re supposed to have these beautiful homes and these well-manicured children, and you know, everything is supposed to look so great. And for women with ADHD – whether they know it or not – the struggle to keep up is incredible,” Jarvis said.

She was diagnosed with ADHD in the last year, and in a way she said it was a relief.

“It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not crazy.’ You know? There’s a reason for this,” she said.

Jarvis’ psychologist Dr. Ellen Littman is a national expert on ADHD among women and girls and has an office in Mount Kisco, NY.

“It’s so hard to understand this disorder, especially in girls because it is not like anything like what people have come to understand is ADD,” Littman said.

She said where boys can show symptoms, especially hyperactivity, in the early grades, it affects girls differently.

“Girls tend to start feeling the symptoms more around age 15, 16,” Littman said, adding that they rarely exhibit the same symptoms as their male counterparts, especially at school.

“They are sitting quietly in class but they are not going to participate. They are lost. They’ve drifted off. They don’t know what the teacher is saying,” Littman said, adding that girls tend to be late and have short attention spans and memory challenges.

“They don’t want to ask for help,” Littman said. “They don’t want to draw attention to themselves.”

With all of their school work, Littman said “there’s a lot of sense of being overwhelmed with what they have to manage, and (they are) anxious about how they’re going to get it done.”

She said for girls with ADHD, the issues don’t just come and go; they are constant.

“It starts having an impact on their self-esteem, which becomes almost bigger than the actual symptoms themselves,” Littman said.

They often present to their doctors with anxiety and depression, which masks the real cause, which is ADHD.

Without a diagnosis, the problems persist and can grow.

Parents can help provide needed structure to guide their daughters who have ADHD, but once they are out in the real world, get married and have their own children, the added responsibilities can push them to a tipping point.

Littman said her patients tell her, “I cry every day. I hate my life. I can’t do this. You know … when my significant other comes I come home, and I haven’t done anything with the dishes from breakfast and I don’t know what’s wrong with me and I can’t read a book or a newspaper.”

She said there are medications and therapies that can make a big difference, which have helped Jarvis.

“There have been strategies. You know, solutions to getting things organized the night before, for example, so that it’s not too crazy getting out the door in the morning,” Jarvis said.

To help stay focused and organized, she said she enlisted a personal organizer who helped her set up a filing system for the piles of mail on her dining room table.

“There’ll be a ‘to do/urgent’ … ‘to do/this week’ … to do/the end of the month’ … ‘to do/whenever I get to it’, which is usually never,” Jarvis said.

She also got a timer to help her stay focused and get things done before any distractions set in.

Her personal organizer also helped organize the girls’ playroom, and medication also made a difference.

“It helps me focus. So instead of my brain being like a thousand pieces of paper blowing in the wind, it’s like channeling that all into a narrow focus, so I can get things done,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said her husband is understanding, and she understands that her issue is not about a lack of intelligence or creativity.

“Huge numbers of very smart people have ADD,” Littman said.

“My goal – really – is to destigmatize this for people to know that you don’t have to wear a mask,” Littman said. “You don’t have to be pretending to be something that you’re not. There is help that’s out there and there is hope.”

By Kaitlyn Naples

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