Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

Women and ADD: The Hidden Disability

Aug 22, 2017 11:41AM ● By Today's Family
By Kimberly Blaker

According to Sari Solden, in her book Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, “Almost all women find that life today is complex, upsetting or frustrating, but they are still able to meet most of life’s demands reasonably well…. For women with untreated attention deficit disorder (ADD), however, the demands of daily life can be crippling.  It cripples their self-esteem, their families, their lives, their work and their relationships.”

ADD, also known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), affects between three and five percent of the population.  However, adult ADD, especially as it appears in women, often goes unrecognized.

Characteristics of ADD in women
The symptoms of ADD are many.  Some are more commonly seen in women and opposite the more recognized symptoms found in men, making detection unlikely and diagnosis difficult.  Each person’s experience with ADD is unique.  While there's a multitude of characteristics, most women with the disorder don’t have every symptom.  Instead, each woman has a mixture of symptoms severe enough to impair some areas of life.

Disorganization is common and often a serious problem for women struggling with ADD.  They may be unable to organize their homes, offices, or lives.  To outsiders, the disorganization isn't always visible. That's because women who lead professional lives may have assistants, secretaries, and cleaning services to assist them.  Some ADD women have a partner who compensates for their organizational dysfunction as well.

Other women with ADD find clutter and disorganization an incredible distraction.  These distractions, coupled with the responsibilities of everyday life, lead to mental disorganization.  The disorganized brain struggles to store, weed out, and organize in a logical fashion. For these women, being tidy and organized equals survival.

Women with ADD can be at either end of the spectrum, either hyperactive or hypoactive (underactive).  Hyperactive women may go at full speed until they crash from the overload.
Family life can also suffer with a hyperactive mother.  She may be unable to sit and play games or read to her children unless she finds the activities stimulating.

Many women with ADD are at the other extreme.  They’re hypoactive, unable to muster the energy to do much of anything. These women are often unable to keep up with life’s many demands. Maintaining a home, participating in family activities, staying in touch with friends, even holding down a job can be a major challenge.

The problem is women with ADD struggle with the inability to regulate attention.  So it doesn't mean they can never maintain attention. Rather, the ability to focus for most with ADD is based on interest and whether the activity is stimulating. Many women daydreamed through school when they were younger.  Yet the subjects or activities they found fun, interesting, or exciting didn’t pose such a problem.  Adult life for these women is often the same.

Hyperfocusing also poses problems and can coexist with symptoms of inattention.  A woman may over-focus on that which interests her and be unable to shift her attention.

Women with ADD may be impatient.  Standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, and being placed on hold for lengthy waits drives some women to the brink.

Also, for some, having ADD is like being on an emotional roller coaster. A woman can  become overly excited by anything positive then swing to the opposite extreme over slight problems, disappointments, or perceived criticism or rejection. 

Studies show the incidence of ADD in men and women is nearly identical, says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., co-author of Understanding Women with AD/HD.  There are several common reasons women with ADD often don’t receive the diagnosis.

Doctors often diagnose the depression that accompanies ADD, but miss the ADD itself.  Women, more often than men, have coexisting anxiety and depression which must be treated as well.

Also, women who are more hyperactive, hypertalkative, and impulsive are sometimes misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Many doctors still look for signs of ADD more typical of boys.  Many doctors fail to understand that ADD symptoms in females often don't appear until puberty or later because of hormonal fluctuations.  When girls enter puberty, during PMS, and as estrogen levels drop in perimenopause and menopause, the symptoms of ADD often worsen.

In addition, girls tend to try harder in school, so their ADD patterns are often masked or overlooked by teachers.

Treatment options
Several treatments are available for ADD.  The most effective is prescription medication.  There's a multitude of stimulant and nonstimulant medications available for treatment.

Behavioral therapy is also beneficial both for coming to terms with the lifelong disorder and to relieve negative coping behaviors.  Coaching is also useful for learning new skills and strategies for structuring life.  Because ADD is neurobiological, therapy and coaching work best in conjunction with medication.

Several ineffective treatments are being marketed as well.  Treatments that are suspect include dietary plans such as the Feingold Diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, anti motion-sickness medication, Candida yeast, EEG Biofeedback, applied kinesiology also known as neural organization technique, and optometric vision training, to name a few.  Often, excessive claims are made about these treatments, citing a few favorable responses or studies that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Where to go for help
An accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment is essential.  Finding a qualified provider isn’t always easy because adult ADD, especially as it affects women, isn't always recognized.  Before seeking a diagnosis, read some recommended books for a better understanding of the disorder and the diagnosis and treatment process.  Also, compile a list of questions to ask your provider to ensure he has a clear understanding of the disorder and appropriate treatments.  If you don’t feel comfortable with a physician’s responses seek help elsewhere.