How Online Learning Is Leaving Young Women With ADHD Behind

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We all remember the middle school class clown—most often a loud boy who spoke of everything on his mind. He interrupted his teacher, his peers, and sometimes even himself. His sugar-filled Teddy Grahams which left Hansel-like crumbs during snack-time didn’t help his hyperactivity, as he often squirmed in his seat or fidgeted with his mechanical pencil. He forgot gym clothes, permission slips, and to carry the four on his fractions quiz. When one thinks of ADHD, this is the child that comes to mind. Certainly, not all class clowns have ADHD, and not all those who have ADHD are class clowns, but because we are so ill-informed about the symptoms, we often associate this disorder with the hyperactive kid at the back of the class. He is the one that gets written up, slumps in the principal’s office, and gets referred to a psychologist for further evaluation. He is the one who gets diagnosed. 

A history of biased research focusing only on young boys presenting symptoms makes our knowledge of ADHD in females limited.

Yet in the same room is another student with ADHD. This time a little girl, who spends her time daydreaming and playing with her hair, zoning out the window instead of focusing on the task at hand. She is shy and quiet, and when she does speak she tends to ramble incessantly until someone stops to tell her that she is too “chatty” or jokes that she is a “gossip queen”. Her symptoms are very present but are often mistaken for other behaviours or overshadowed by her more hyperactive male counterparts. In a chaotic classroom environment that is not conducive to her version of learning, this girl’s inattentive-type ADHD—which differs from hyperactive ADHD—may never get diagnosed until much later on in her life, most likely after her own extensive research and self-diagnosis. 

Inattentive-type ADHD, often referred to as ADD, tends to present itself in young girls far more than boys. A history of biased research focusing only on young boys presenting symptoms makes our knowledge of ADHD in females limited. Often, symptoms are misinterpreted as simply part of “growing up”: eating disorders, self-esteem issues, depression, and anxiety manifest more in girls with ADHD. It affects parts of a woman’s life in different ways than men. While males will more noticeably deal with anger issues, suspensions, and substance abuse, women tend to see more turbulence in their home life and relationships, often blaming themselves for it. 

The lack of self-regulation and time management among adolescent girls in university has augmented during the pandemic and the shift to online learning.

When young boys and girls grow up, the lack of awareness for ADHD in women perpetuates gender roles in the home. Even as society has moved to more equal money-making and home-making between mothers and fathers in heterosexual relationships, the shift to online learning during the pandemic has made gender roles more distinct. Mothers are often tasked with managing their child’s seamless transition into online learning, taking on the burden of keeping their children on track. This phenomenon reveals the number of expectations we set for women and our demands for them to mature far more rapidly than they should. 

I couldn’t help but reflect on how a female university student with undiagnosed ADHD must be dealing with the remote shift, especially since young girls fit into a stereotype of being “neat” and “organised” with all of their tasks. Navigating online school is already difficult enough. There is always this looming threat of a hidden deadline, a quiz that may have prematurely closed, or even an entirely missing midterm. For girls, ADHD symptoms are often overlooked—and only recently diagnosed—in university. Until then, evidence suggests that girls with undiagnosed ADHD can do extremely well in high school because of the lack of independence they are given. Missing deadlines, up until university, were resolved with a phone call home to discuss the inability to meet certain academic demands. Involved parents would then make the right decisions for her. 

In university, the only accountability is a zero on MyCourses, a lot less tangible than being reprimanded by parents. The lack of self-regulation and time management among adolescent girls in university has augmented during the pandemic and the shift to online learning. Freshmen with ADHD often see significantly lower academic success in following years, but after almost a year of online learning, a delayed diagnosis may be too late. The product of undiagnosed ADHD can include hindered academic success, involvement in the criminal justice system, accidents, and self-esteem issues. These detrimental outcomes demonstrate the importance of education on ADHD in university, especially in female circles.

A shift towards an academic environment that is more aware and open about ADHD in women requires each of us to learn about the symptoms and the different ways that ADHD can manifest.

Our awareness of ADHD shouldn’t be reduced to a culture of Adderall and fidget spinners. We should check up on friends who may be in the process of a diagnosis or who are considering one. A shift towards an academic environment that is more aware and open about ADHD in women requires each of us to learn about the symptoms and the different ways that ADHD can manifest. It also requires us to be tolerant of other mental health issues that may present themselves alongside ADHD, including general moodiness and impulsivity. 

By removing the standard of maturity we place on young girls and revealing common myths about ADHD, perhaps we will refocus the discussion on what it means to maneuver a difficult online learning experience. Most of all, we can make sure that the women in our lives—friends, mothers, sisters, and even the young girl staring out the window—can make the most of their promising futures.

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