ADHD may conjure up stereotypes of ‘naughty boys’ or children who can’t sit still. And by and large, that is true – after all, stereotypes come from somewhere, right? However, although four times more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD in childhood, by adulthood the ratio of males with ADHD to females with ADHD is more like 1:1.
I was one of those girls who didn’t appear in the statistics for children with ADHD, but I would appear in the adult statistics. Officially, I have only had ADHD since February 2020. But in reality, I’ve had it for 32 years because it is a lifelong condition. There are times where the ADHD is more obvious and times where it is less obvious, but it hasn’t gone away – it’s still there, and the chances are that if the signs are harder to spot then the person with ADHD is making some considerable effort to hide these signs.
So why is there such a gulf between these figures? Why are so many more males than females diagnosed in childhood, and vice versa? Mainly, this is due to the fact that symptoms in boys are generally more obvious and external: constantly running around, not being able to sit still, acting impulsively and in some cases being physically aggressive. Girls are more likely to internalise their symptoms and be withdrawn, anxious and daydreamers with low self-esteem.
For women who are not diagnosed in childhood, their ADHD generally only becomes apparent in later life when they try (and fail) to juggle work, family and other responsibilities. And when they try to seek help or understanding, they are very often misdiagnosed with other conditions such as anxiety, depression and in some cases personality disorders.
Whether male or female, everybody who has ADHD will have some (or all) of these signs and symptoms:
Short attention span, especially for non-preferred tasks
Hyperactivity, which may be physical, verbal, and/or emotional
Impulsivity, which may manifest as recklessness
Fidgeting or restlessness
Disorganization and difficulty prioritising tasks
Poor time management and ‘time blindness’
Frequent mood swings and emotional dysregulation
Forgetfulness and poor working memory
Trouble multitasking and executive dysfunction
Inability to control anger or frustration
Trouble completing tasks and frequent procrastination
For me, my ADHD started to become apparent when I was 17 and in sixth form. I was described by my teachers as someone who was ‘intelligent, but needed to apply herself a little more to achieve her full potential’. Without too much effort I achieved 10 GCSEs, all B grades or higher, but in sixth form it all unravelled and I barely scraped a pass in 2 A-Levels, only achieving C, D and E grades. My head of sixth form stated I would never get in to university and therefore would never amount to anything.
Luckily I had no intention of attending university and instead joined the Met, initially as a PCSO and then as a PC. However I began to struggle when I was on response team and my ADHD became even more apparent as I couldn’t understand why, having had a previously successful stint on response, I was struggling so badly now. My self-esteem got worse, and I developed anxiety and depression and found myself trapped in a cycle where the harder I tried, the more I kept struggling. It was like drowning – the more I kicked to try and keep my head above water, the further I sank. Eventually, I was given a choice: leave response, or be subject to the performance management process. I chose the former.
It would take me another four years before I was diagnosed with ADHD. Only now can I begin to understand who I truly am. I’m not an idiot, I’m not a failure. My brain is wired differently, and while I am disorganised and lose focus very easily, I am disciplined enough to (along with the help of my medication) control my distractibility to a certain extent. I am learning to stop setting myself ridiculously high and unachievable standards which knock my self-esteem when I don’t achieve them.
Most people perceive ADHD as something negative. But for me it makes me who I am. And it’s not always negative. I work very well under pressure – if I have to get something done by a certain deadline, I will pull out all the stops to get it done, and get it done to a high standard. I am extremely resilient – I guess I’ve had to be with all the hurdles I have had to overcome! If I’m struggling with managing my time or knowing which task to prioritise over others, instead of using neurotypical techniques to try and help (and then being surprised when they don’t work because I am not neurotypical!) I find some ADHD-friendly techniques instead.
My life may have ended up differently to what I originally imagined, but I wouldn’t swap having ADHD for anything.
I will finish with a quote I have stolen from a colleague in the MOD Police who also has ADHD as he says it much better (and with fewer words) than I can. He says: “Don’t be harsh on yourself. Stop viewing the world from a neurotypical vantage point that sees your traits as negatives, and understand that you are different and special. You have unique gifts, and to steal a quote from a colleague, each of us is simply a different kind of clever. So – forget your weaknesses and seek out your strengths.” ∎
As a support network for neurodivergent police officers and staff, one of our most frequently-asked questions concerns reasonable adjustments. A reasonable adjustment is defined as a change in the workplace to remove or reduce the effect of an employee or job applicant’s disability, when carrying out or applying for a job. Disabled employees and applicants, including* those with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and dyslexia, are entitled to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act to help them overcome the limitations of their disability or condition at work or in seeking employment.
An important concept in the reasonable adjustment process is that it is sometimes necessary to treat people differently in order to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to succeed. This is best illustrated by the following graphic, created by the Canadian City for All Women Initiative:
The first image shows what can happen when everyone is treated equally – some people will lose out due to the effect of their disability or other protected characteristic. The second image shows equity, or fairness, and how this differs from equality – by giving some people additional support, everyone has an equal chance of success.
Reasonable adjustments in selection and promotion processes are sometimes misunderstood as ‘special treatment’ that gives some people an unfair advantage (and therefore disadvantages others). It’s important to understand that adjustments are there to ensure that disabled and neurodivergent applicants have the same chance of success as everyone else – the second image in the graphic. A typical example is wording the interview questions for an autistic candidate to remove any ambiguity, and allowing the candidate to have each question in writing to refer to when they provide their answer. Research by the University of Bath has shown that autistic interviewees can over-analyse or misinterpret questions and struggle to mentally organise their evidence to fit what is being asked – adjusting the style of questions, providing thinking time and written prompts allows the candidate to overcome these difficulties and present themselves as well as other applicants. (Candidates with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions may also benefit from these adjustments.)
Continuing the example of workplace interviews, some employers have gone a step further by providing all candidates with neurodivergent-friendly questions, preparation time and written prompts. This is an example of the third image in the graphic – removing the systemic barrier so that no one is disadvantaged or needs to ask for adjustments. With a little thought and effort, this approach can be applied to any workplace environment, process or culture – and as with the interview example, it has the potential to benefit everyone, disabled or not. ∎
In this personal account, Ministry of Defence Police Sergeant Dan Harris reflects on his ADHD diagnosis and how his understanding of the condition allowed him to recognise his strengths and achievements
I first started writing this blog based around my experience of ADHD in January 2021. The original draft contained gems of information encased in multiple layers of drivel that would likely reduce the reader to abandonment after a few lines. I felt the article needed to relay my journey in terms of pre- and post-diagnosis and how it impacted on my life during both phases due to the traits. On reading it through, it felt like a monotonous trudge along a barren motorway.
I once spoke to a fellow police service ADHD-er – what struck me about this individual was their extraordinary positivity regarding their condition. In my mind, I remember thinking that we were looking at the condition from two completely different perspectives; and for the briefest of moments, through this dialogue I was able to experience how they completely accepted and embraced each aspect of ADHD lovingly and with no judgement. I momentarily wore their perspective like an item of clothing, hoping it would fit. This was a garment they had spent significant time lovingly weaving, but regrettably I just couldn’t get it to stay in place; it felt wrong and it didn’t conform. I concluded that my colleague’s life experiences had been significantly kinder than mine.
My personal journey into ADHD did not commence until 2018. I am now 45 years of age so its fair to say I have spent a significant portion of my life not knowing I had this condition. Sadly, this is not unusual as ADHD is only really observed (usually by others) when it explodes in what can only be described as uncontrollable behaviour, which more commonly manifests in young male children. It’s a sorry situation when a condition is only treated or noticed when it becomes intolerable, but sadly this lack of understanding is not just confined to ADHD – it’s endemic in most neurodivergent conditions.
Media coverage has most likely perpetuated the stereotyping that exists around ADHD, and if this is the fire then some professionals who are perhaps ill-informed and really ought to know better must surely be the fuel. A significant problem here is that most stereotyped ADHD behaviour appears typical in young males, and since some can mask this behaviour as they grow older, it perpetuates the damaging perception that ADHD is a childhood condition. There are also other negative connotations: many females are either are not as aggressive with the condition – and thus more malleable – or they struggle with the attention deficit element which is again less obvious to spot. But of even more significance is not all males with the condition can be expected to conform to the stereotypical norm either, and their chances of being diagnosed are even more significantly reduced, as is evidenced by both my son and I.
My own diagnosis came about after my son was diagnosed as there were similarities between us. However, my son excelled during his initial schooling and then seemingly fell into a precipice when he had to take responsibility for his own learning on conclusion of secondary education. Sadly, by comparison I struggled with the early part of schooling and whilst I was respectful and well-behaved, I never really achieved much in the initial schooling years. During my personal exploration pre-diagnosis there were elements of ADHD that seemed to resonate with me and an online screening test via the informative Additude website seemed to strongly suggest I might have the condition. At around this time I had informed my line manager of my desire to seek diagnosis and he responded by stating “Why do you want to go and get yourself a label?” I clearly remember the time of day, the room we were stood in and the wave of anger that I managed to stifle as I explained why this was so important to me.
Whilst I was finishing off my first draft of this blog, the above incident was one of many I can recount since diagnosis, and I reflected on childhood more than I have ever done before. I could seldom remember a positive word written by teachers in my school reports, and perhaps even sadder is that my parents cared even less because they had zero expectations of me and had effectively written me off at a young age through comparisons with my three older siblings. Until I started writing this piece, I held great resentment towards them post-diagnosis. However, I had an epiphany that now deeply resonates: I had become everything they believed me to be, and this became deeply ingrained. Comments on my old school reports may strike a chord with some of you; in my day I theorised that teachers must have held rubber stamps to be wielded on those pupils who were somewhat beyond their teaching abilities. I knew they used to talk in the staff room, and I believed they must have shared the same labels and used them every year on my reports. My stamps were: “needs to pay attention”, “easily distracted by others”, “has proven on occasions that he is able, but is simply not trying hard enough”, “nice lad tries hard”, and so on. One teacher once got so frustrated when I expressed concerns over an inability to grasp his teaching that he informed me I would amount to nothing, becoming a person subjected to the ‘mushroom theory’. To my delight he then embellished this further, informing me that I would be locked in a dark room my entire life and fed on excrement (he of course used the somewhat more common word!) This was the first and only time that I learned something in one of his lessons.
I cannot thank the NPAA enough for allowing me to write this blog, as it led to something quite profound happening. When reflecting on my past I began recounting all the self-perceived negative traits of my condition, and then linked them to moments where I had failed in one way or another. I had forgotten about school reports, lack of belief from parents and most (but not all) teachers. I thought about profound moments of failure and directly linked them to my condition – I had done this since diagnosis with more recent failures, so going back further wasn’t too difficult. The defining moment however came in an extremely rare moment of stillness: in my mind, I pondered on why I needed to perceive my condition so negatively. At first, I thought it could be down to my turbulent experience since diagnosis and my battle to have my condition accepted. But in the end, the real reason needed that moment of stillness in order to cut through negative self-perception.
After diagnosis I searched for signs of all the negative traits synonymous with ADHD, and with every passing day I discovered something new, leaving little point in looking too far back in my life. The condition is held in such poor esteem, and some will question its existence even in the face of overwhelming evidence. If you are new to ADHD, can you immediately identify any positive traits of the condition as you read this blog? The poor perceptions and stereotypical views were the perspective that I was judging myself from, and it was from this basis that I was searching for evidence to justify my diagnosis to others. The problem being the more I did it, the more people normalised some of my traits which I made me feel like they were being dismissive and simply added further frustration.
It’s impossible to ignore the negative elements of my condition, especially in challenging environments where there is very little support, but I now know I can now choose how I allow these moments to affect me. I can continue championing the condition whilst educating others, and I can now stop searching for those negative traits and celebrate the positive ones. During my attempts to justify the existence of my condition, others were keen to highlight minor successes as if they were some huge significant achievement, but the reality was these were relatively ordinary in comparison to my neurotypical peers. Colleagues with similar intelligence had easily negotiated these hurdles and beyond, and many had left me behind in my 22 year career including student officers I had trained. My perception was that these minor achievements were being highlighted to qualify my colleagues’ rationale for not needing to support me. Far worse though were the feelings that they were effectively suggesting I had achieved so much for a person with ADHD.
My perception of self has now changed thanks to this blog, and I no longer view it from that old perspective. Writing this piece caused a period of reflection where I suddenly diverted from my old destination in favour of a much shorter and more interesting route. I now know that very few of my neurotypical peers would have been able to overcome the mental barriers I overcame over the years, even if my achievements in doing so were mundane compared to what they achieved. Few will have picked themselves up from continual rejection and displayed an almost superhuman forms of resilience. Better still, I also realised I had a unique set of gifts afforded to me that were gathering dust due to my former misdirected focus. I am learning to weave a garment from my own unique brand of ADHD which fits me perfectly, and if a person can’t accept who I am that says more about them than me.
I will now present my former perspective of my ADHD and follow with a more positive perspective – but first, a common quote which resonates with me: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid”. This is credited to Albert Einstein, whom many have suspected was ADHD.
There are times in my life where I have been left frustrated by my carelessness and this has resulted in failing in some aspirations when competing with other people. ADHD has gifted me with high levels of resilience and taught me how to bounce back from rejection and failure.
I can be terribly messy and leave things lying around. My ADHD creates a phenomenon where items cease to exist until I am reminded of them, and then searching for them can be frustrating and take time. As a coping mechanism I place things in line of site where they are never forgotten – I also habitually place them in the same location, although this can seem messy to others. (See Einstein’s desk for example.) Whilst this niggles my neurotypical colleagues, this simple process highlights my highly adaptable abilities as my differently wired brain finds ways to adapt to its neurotypical foreign environment. I am the fish out of water.
My disorganisation can lead to tasks being missed. I have a superpower of hyperfocus which provides me with boundless energy to keep going until a task is complete and within the deadline. I do sometimes miss deadlines, and I occasionally miss non-critical deadlines in an unsupported environment. However, when there is an urgent task you can rely on my extreme energy levels and hyperfocus to kick and see the task through to completion with seconds to spare.
I can’t prioritise and can only manage one small task at a time. I now realise this was a mis-sold perception that I invested far too much time and belief in. I can in fact multi-task – see above for those critical deadlines! ADHD folk benefit from breaking down tasks into short sprints affording each with a ‘win’ at the end. I had previously been trying to apply neurotypical techniques, and it was this approach that created disastrous results.
I hardly sleep compared to others. Some nights I just can’t stop my brain from its constant internal dialogue, and no matter how hard I try I just don’t seem to get a quality night’s sleep. During these times when others are deep in the land of nod, my brain seeks solutions to problems and it is at these times I have worked through some major issues. Whilst I sleep less, I actually feel no worse for it – in fact on the rare occasions when I am able to sleep, I find my brain is less alert.
I am easily distracted and miss things all the time. How can I possibly take a positive from that? Well it turns out that the attention deficit element of my condition is not a lack of attention, but is actually related to too much attention. ADHD folk lack the chemical dopamine which is the feel-good chemical that motivates neurotypical people to complete tasks. My brain is constantly scanning for things to stimulate the brain. This ability was also essential in prehistoric times as my people were able to constantly scan for dangers. ADHD folk were the pathfinders back in the day. My peripheral vision is constantly scanning, so it comes into its own when driving.
Other positives of my own brand which I know many others share are an unbounding energy and enthusiasm, extreme levels of resilience, and an ability to think outside the box. In fact rather than thinking outside the box I just remove the boxes completely, which can be overwhelming to some of my neurotypical colleagues!
Moving forward, I will learn ways to use my gifts to my advantage: I will recognise that the external environment is structured to cater for the majority and that by making subtle adjustments I can adapt to most environments. For those where I can’t and where there is no support enabling me to thrive, I simply need to remove myself from that location and find a place where my skills will be valued and embraced. I am currently studying a master’s degree in human resource management – I had previously attempted study pre-diagnosis and suffered a spectacular crash, but this time I have appropriate support to help me overcome my disadvantages. If there is one thing I have learnt in the first twelve months its that the human resource is a valuable commodity. When we consider policing, it can be considered the main cog in the machine, and our success depends on it. Failure to maximise the potential of everyone who is a component of that machine could ultimately result in inefficiency, but worse in my eyes is that it overlooks the opportunity to achieve maximum performance and to create a happy and inclusive working environment.
If you are embarking on the same journey of discovery for ADHD or any other neurodivergent condition, my advice is this: don’t be harsh on yourself. Stop viewing the world from a neurotypical vantage point that sees your traits as negatives, and understand that you are different and special. You have unique gifts, and to steal a quote from a colleague, each of us is simply a different kind of clever. So – forget your weaknesses and seek out your strengths. ∎