I was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD when I was 5. For 1994 — and even 2017 — this was unusual: Girls typically are diagnosed later in life than boys; tending to exhibit symptoms of inattentiveness, rather than hyperactivity, they fly under the radar of parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. I, however, was one of those rare littlest females whose symptoms included inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Although this meant my ADHD was severe enough to send up a red flag, it also signified I would get the help I needed at a much younger age than many little girls do even today. And I can tell you from personal experience that the younger a child with severe ADHD is diagnosed, the better. But that’s not all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “About 2 million of the more than 6 million children with ADHD were diagnosed as young children aged 2–5 years,” however, “Children with more severe ADHD are more likely to be diagnosed early.” But I believe that girls with even milder forms of ADHD should be diagnosed earlier as well. Here’s why:
1. It may take a while to identify the right treatment regimen for her.
This is a passage from the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities website:
For children 6 years of age and older, the American Academy of Pediatrics … recommends both behavior therapy and medication as good options, preferably both together. For young children (under 6 years of age) with ADHD, behavior therapy is recommended as the first line of treatment, before medication is tried. Good treatment plans will include close monitoring of whether and how much the treatment helps the child’s behavior, and making changes as needed along the way.
As you can see, there is a lot of wiggle room — whether or not you want it — in the creation of treatment regimens for little ones with ADHD. And it is much better to start this process early in a girl’s education. Ideally, in fact, it would be finalized (for the time being) even before first grade, so that, come the first day of school, she’ll be able to start her academic career on a level playing field.
2. She needs time to figure out her limitations and how to work around them.
Just because a girl finds a medication that works for her or has success in therapy doesn’t mean she’s limitation-free. As I’ve said in the past, ADHD medications aren’t 100 percent effective, and CNS stimulant medications last 12 hours at most. Even with modern medicine, the onus is on the ADHD girl to know what she’s capable of — or isn’t, as the case may be — and engage with life accordingly.
3. The earlier she is diagnosed, the earlier she qualifies for accommodations
This can include accommodations via an Individual Education Program (IEP), as well as informal academic accommodations requested by parents or even arranged with a teacher at the request of the girl herself (see below). For all their shortcomings vis-à-vis their response to my ADHD, most of my K-12 teachers were reasonable enough to agree to informal accommodations if I made an effort to propose them, and the few who didn’t, well, they eventually consented once my mom intervened (thanks, Mom)! But my experience was the exception, not the rule. The fact is, people are a lot more likely to be decent human beings and accommodate kids with ADHD if there’s a legal impetus for them to do so.
4. She should have plenty of time to learn to self-advocate.
According to the CDC, an article published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that “girls who had a number of symptoms when they were young were as likely as boys to continue to have those symptoms after they became teenagers.” Thus, ADHD can be a chronic (long-lasting) issue for all children, regardless of gender. This means an ADHD girl needs to know just what’s wrong with her (her neurology, not her character) so she can develop coping mechanisms and learn to adapt her life to her brain, such as by arranging informal accommodations with a teacher (see above).
5. She deserves, right from the start, to know she is not a bad person.
As I said, a problem with your neurology doesn’t indicate a problem with your character. In fact, if you find out that you have a mental disorder, in this case, ADHD, you’re also finding out that you haven’t actually been to blame for all the “bad” things you do or ways you behave. But this revelation only comes with the proper diagnosis. The reason this is particularly pivotal for girls, even more so than boys, is that in this world of misogyny and sexism, people whose gender is coded ‘female’ have enough to grapple with just by said gender. There is no need to compound those challenges with untreated neurological impairments; in fact, that must be avoided at all costs.