One young lawyer’s struggle to be accepted for who she is, why ADHD reveals a racial divide, and how to make differences work for everyone.
Growing up in a Jamaican household in the late nineties and early aughts, the only thing I heard about ADHD is what I saw in American commercials. In between episodes of Family Feud and The Fresh Prince were advertisements for Ritalin and Adderall. They portrayed frustrated parents who, thanks to a diagnosis and effective medication, saw significant changes in their child’s behavior and academic performance by the end of the ad.
In most West Indian households at the time, ADHD was a myth. It was the euphemism used by White women to justify their poor parenting and rambunctious children. Jamaican children didn’t get ADHD. They got spanked for acting up. Many West Indians subscribed to the Big Pharma conspiracy theories: ADHD was a fictitious condition that was created by drug manufacturers to sell pills to gullible consumers.
But looking back, the signs were all there for me. I was always losing lunch money, toys, and books. Teachers consistently commented on my great potential, my inability to pay attention to details, and my penchant for careless mistakes.
My parents were frustrated with me at home. I couldn’t keep my room clean. I seemed to create a mess everywhere I went and jumped from task to task without finishing anything. There were constant complaints of lost items due to my failure to put things back after use. Quite often, I would be eating a meal at the dining table and suddenly decide that I’d rather be doing something else. The half-eaten meal would be left on the table while I went back to my room to read a book or watch TV. To my father, this was reprehensible. I was leaving my dirty dishes around the house because I expected that someone would clean up after me.
In hindsight, what my parents interpreted as bad behavior or a lack of discipline was really just the manifestation of neurodiversity. Children with ADHD appear not to listen when spoken to and have difficulty following instructions. To parents who don’t know better, this kind of behavior can be seen as disobedient or disrespectful.
Even for parents who weren’t cynical about ADHD, there was so little information available at the time. The “hyperactive” aspect of the condition was emphasized the most. The archetypical child with ADHD is a little White boy who can’t sit still and isn’t realizing his full potential in school.
But ADHD tends to present differently in women and girls. We tend to lean more toward the “attention-deficit” end of the spectrum. The other face of ADHD is the little girl who is quiet in math class because she’s daydreaming, reading a comic book, or writing in her journal. She still gets good grades and doesn’t give much trouble, so her condition goes undetected and undiagnosed for many years.
Fast forward fifteen years and the little girl is now a woman who can’t seem to get the hang of this “adulting” thing. She finds it difficult to arrive on time for appointments and can’t keep her apartment tidy for more than a day or two. Her desk at work is cluttered with papers and she’s afraid that if she’s late for another meeting, she’ll be out of a job. There is constant anxiety over the possibility of an unpaid bill, forgetting a friend’s birthday, and having to replace yet another set of lost keys.
I received my ADHD diagnosis when I was nearly thirty. By that point, I had already developed one of the most unpleasant hallmarks of the disorder: low self-esteem due to my apparent failure to “get it together.” From chronic procrastination (and the resulting guilt) to poor time and money management, my ADHD diagnosis seemed to explain all the things I hated about myself.
And yet, the diagnosis seemed to account for many of the things that made me special and allowed me to earn an income. I’ve always been a creative thinker, which made me an asset in the marketing industry. The same feature of my brain that caused me to go off on a tangent in conversations also allowed me to find connections between disparate bits of information, which came in handy as an attorney.
Another superpower that my ADHD provided was hyperfocus. This is an experience of deep and intense concentration that is common for neurodivergent people. I experience it both short-term (such as churning out a 10,000-word article in one sitting) and long term (such as being completely obsessed with a hobby or interest for weeks on end, followed by disinterest). Even with unpleasant tasks, once I get over the hurdle of actually starting, it’s hard to get myself to stop. This was useful for long nights of studying in law school. On the flip side, I often hyperfocus on leisure books or video games. This can cause the maddening phenomenon of your brain screaming at you to get back to work while your body seems physically incapable of doing so.
Realizing that this went all the way back to my childhood was eye-opening for me. Learning to manage my symptoms has been an affirming and validating experience. I’m not a mess. I’m just neurodivergent.
ADHD is the most prevalent neurodivergent disorder, while also being the least diagnosed. This is especially true for Black people due to cultural and socioeconomic factors.
African American children are diagnosed with ADHD at only two-thirds the rate of White children, despite displaying more symptoms.1 Additionally, Black children who do get a diagnosis are less likely to receive treatment. This can be attributed to factors both within and external to the community. Black children are given less grace than White children and are often simply regarded as misbehaved or rude.
Multiple studies indicate that at the kindergarten level, an African American child is 70% less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than their White counterpart.2 By tenth grade, a White child is nearly twice as likely to receive a diagnosis than a Black child.3
Research also indicates that we may be sabotaging our own children. A recent study found that White teachers are more likely to attribute a Black boy’s behavior to ADHD than are Black parents.4
ADHD is widely regarded as a kid’s disorder that vanishes in adulthood. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Long-term studies of children diagnosed with ADHD show that it is a lifespan disorder.5 Up to 65% of children with ADHD continue to experience major symptoms in adulthood. For many adults, ADHD can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. This happens because the disorder can make it difficult to perform well at work or handle daily tasks. This can lead to feelings of incompetence and diminished self-esteem.
ADHD is underdiagnosed in women and girls, though they are just as likely to experience the disorder. One reason for this is that women and girls tend to be on the “inattentive” end of the ADHD spectrum while men and boys are on the hyperactive end. Hyperactivity is much more obvious. Black girls and women are also more likely to overcompensate or “mask” their ADHD symptoms, due to societal expectations.
It’s no secret that Black women have been underserved by the healthcare industry.6 This undoubtedly extends to ADHD diagnosis, treatment and care.
There have been countless studies over the last few decades that prove the existence of ADHD in both children and adults. Research also proves that people with ADHD have extreme difficulty starting and finishing tasks. Still, there exists a stigma that people with ADHD are merely lazy or unmotivated. Neurotypical people are often genuinely unable to sympathize with the plight of those with ADHD. This is particularly true in the Black community, where hard work is often more of an expectation than a virtue.
After receiving my ADHD diagnosis, I gained new insight into the challenges I had been having with my career. It became obvious to me that a traditional work environment was not conducive to my success. Being able to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic gave me the opportunity to give myself the concessions and accommodations that I was not getting at the office.
Neurodiverse conditions include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum including Asperger’s, dyslexia, and Tourette’s syndrome. The term “neurodiversity” was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer. A neurodivergent person’s brain functions, processes information, and learns differently from neurotypical people. When one considers the realities of intersectionality, Black neurodivergent people are doubly inhibited in the workplace.
It is now widely accepted that neurodivergent people have talents, skills, and perspectives that serve to enhance and enrich work environments. Hiring neurodiverse employees can improve overall employee morale and have a positive impact on company culture.
Employers who hire neurodiverse employees are impressed with their aptitude for roles that require innovation and creativity. Many neurodiverse people are especially skilled at coding, complex mathematical tasks, and other data-driven processes.
Market research7 also indicates that consumers prefer doing business with companies that hire people with disabilities. As businesses strive to be more inclusive and diverse, neurodiversity has become a pertinent talking point.
A large part of this shift involves sensitizing neurotypical employees and making simple shifts to enable neurodivergent people to maximize their potential. Many top companies (including Microsoft, EY, and Dell) have reformed their HR processes to deliberately hire and retain neurodiverse employees. Companies of all sizes can benefit from following suit.
Unfortunately, neurodiverse people still face much discrimination in the workplace before they even get the job. Traditional recruitment processes are often a gatekeeper for neurodivergent people. Interviews, for example, can be especially difficult for individuals with autism, Tourette’s syndrome, or a social anxiety disorder. Recruiters who don’t know any better may rule out a talented and qualified candidate due to perceived eccentricities associated with their neurodivergent condition. Simply put, people with these conditions can be less gregarious than their neurotypical counterparts. Interviewers who are charmed by witty banter and social graces often overlook qualified and competent candidates simply because they didn’t feel a personal connection with them. This can be detrimental for the professional advancement of neurodivergent people.
After being hired, neurodiverse people often need special accommodations to perform their best at work. These are often quite simple to implement and require only a bit of thoughtfulness and courtesy. Examples include:
The choice of accommodations will vary, of course, according to the person and their type of neurodiversity.
Accommodating neurodiversity in the workplace comes down to showing empathy. As noted in blog #34 (This is what happens when you show empathy), what marginalized people need most is allies. Neurodiverse people need neurotypical allies in the form of employers and colleagues who will empathize with them, appreciate their strengths, give them the benefit of the doubt, and provide the support they need to show up as their best selves.
ADHD is a lifelong struggle for many people. There’s no real cure, though there are many ways to effectively manage the symptoms. I soon realized that most workplaces would not be willing to provide the accommodations and concessions that I needed, so I had to provide that for myself. One upside of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased availability of remote work. By transitioning from a formal 9-5 full-time job to working for myself from home, I was better able to give myself the flexibility and accommodations that I need. The “spark” to work may come at 10:00pm. When the spark comes, I have to take it because I don’t know when it will be back. My flexible schedule allows me to work from 10:00pm to 3:00am, go to bed, and catch up on sleep without needing to rush to an office for 9:00.
The downside is that it can be hard to hold myself accountable while working alone. Many people with ADHD find that having a “body double” improves focus and motivation. By simply having another person nearby, my ability to start and complete tasks is exponentially increased. I now use virtual coworking services where strangers meet online to hold each other accountable while getting things done.
After receiving my diagnosis, I unlocked a new level of self-awareness. I realized that my shortcomings were not moral failures and that I could learn to manage them. I now believe that I am an interesting, creative, and talented person not in spite of my ADHD, but perhaps because of it.
Francine is a practicing attorney in Jamaica, specializing in family law, estate planning, and personal injury law. She is also a human rights consultant at an NGO. Prior to receiving her law degree, she worked in social media and copywriting.
The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.
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Morgan, P.L., J. Staff et al. Racial and ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis from kindergarten to eighth grade. Pediatrics. July 2013, 132(1), 85-93.
 Morgan, P.L., M.M. Hillemeier et al. Racial/ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis by kindergarten entry. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. August 2014, 55(8), 905-13.
 Coker, T.R., Marc N. Elliott et al. Racial and ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis and treatment. Pediatrics, Sept 2016, 138(3).
 Kang, S. and E. Harvey. Racial differences between Black parents’ and White teachers’ perceptions of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2020, 48, 661-672.
 Myths and misunderstandings. CHADD.org.
 How discrimination can harm Black women’s health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
 A national survey of consumer attitudes towards companies that hire people with disabilities. University of Massachusetts, Boston.