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OPINION: Neurodiversity in women and nonbinary people should not be overlooked



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The Disability Services for Students office is located on the third floor of Herman B Wells Library. Alex Deryn

Neurodiverse individuals, who have neurological differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, are largely misunderstood no matter their gender. But women and nonbinary people with ADHD and autism are often overlooked, misdiagnosed and punished in ways their male peers are not. 

As a child, I had typical ADHD symptoms, except hyperactivity, starting from my first few years in elementary school. I was punished and accused of laziness by multiple adults in my life who did not realize that my struggles with organization and focus came not from a lack of desire to learn but from an untreated neurological issue.

I learned very quickly to hide my differences, rarely talking about my hyperfixations among my friends and learning quickly to follow rules that seemed designed to make school harder for me

The exhausting practice of hiding symptoms of ADHD, autism or another neurological issue in public is called "masking," and this task often falls to women and girls. Social mores are strictly enforced among women and nonbinary people, and our failure to comply to them can result in ostracization from our peers and teachers. We quickly learn to be ashamed of and disguise our neurodiverse traits.

Women are far less frequently diagnosed with ADHD and autism than our cisgender male counterparts. Recent research shows ADHD diagnoses have a male-to-female ratio of more than 2 to 1. The ratio for autism is more than 3 to 1, according to a 2017 study. Women tend to receive ADHD diagnoses later in life and may be missed as children, according 2016 study published by the American Medical Association.

I was not diagnosed with ADHD, however, until middle school. This is an all-too-common reality for neurodiverse women, and it largely affects our ability to thrive. To help women and girls, as well as nonbinary people, receive the accommodations they need, they should be encouraged to see their symptoms not as character failings but as neurological differences.

Autism and ADHD often present differently in females than in males. While males with ADHD are often hyperactive, this is less common among females. Women with ADHD generally experience symptoms like difficulty paying attention, which is easier for teachers to ignore. Autistic girls, too, often present themselves as quieter or less disruptive than their autistic male peers, making symptoms less noticeable.

According to a 2015 Stanford University study, the disparity in autism diagnoses is directly connected to differences in brain chemistry between autistic females and males. The study did not account for transgender individuals or those who identify outside the binary.

Atticus Jolley is a junior at IU and a nonbinary individual with both autism and ADHD. They said that working in food and retail has required them to act in a more neurotypical manner.

“That’s usually what makes it the most difficult since I have to act a lot nicer, at least in a way that will come off as super nice,” Jolley said. “But sometimes it’s hard, especially when I’m already tired in the first place.”

Jolley said they believe that neurodiverse people who are perceived as non-male by society might have a more difficult time recognizing their symptoms.

“I feel like it influences how long it takes for us to actually notice or be diagnosed with autism because it’s kind of like a lot more of those expectations are a lot more imposed on us from a younger age,” they said.

They added that they might be expected to “mask” to fit into gendered social niceties before they are even diagnosed or understand what they are doing. 

“Those expectations are a lot more imposed on us from a younger age, so we might start doing those things before we even know there is a problem, because we kind of think, ‘Yeah, other not-men are expected to act this way,’ so me acting a lot more reserved and polite wasn’t really a big, glaring problem,” they said.

Women and nonbinary people with ADHD and autism will continue to fall behind and become lost due to our differences if we remain undiagnosed. The change must start with realizing that their symptoms are just as valid in showing neurodiversity as the more typical symptoms expressed by cisgender men with the same conditions.

Serena Fox (she/her or they/them) is a sophomore studying geography and environmental sustainability. She is passionate about climate justice.

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