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ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorders, yet for many women it isn’t until they reach their twenties or thirties that they finally receive a diagnosis.

By: Harriet Grayson

“You don’t realise that other people don’t feel like you do in your mind, where it’s all very, very busy, quite noisy, sometimes irritatingly so.”

For many young girls, the terms “daydreamer” or “window-gazer” are commonplace. They may have trouble paying attention in class or focusing on a task, but it is just because they have over active imaginations. No one would stop to think that this daydreaming could in fact be a symptom of ADHD, that while everything might seem normal up close everything is “chaos”.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is one of the most common neurodevelopment disorders that arises in childhood and lasts well into adulthood. In Australia alone, it is estimated that one in 20 children suffer from ADHD. While ADHD is often perceived as a child who simply can’t sit still, there are in fact two very different types of ADHD. 

One is the hyperactive-impulsive form, the most commonly recognised form of ADHD. Children with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD typically squirm or fidget regularly, are overly talkative, have trouble taking turns with others and find it difficult to focus on one task at a time. 

The less common form is the inattentive form of ADHD. Children with this form often daydream a lot, regularly forget or lose things, and make careless mistakes more often than most children do. 

According to child and adult psychotherapist, Fran Walfish, boys tend to exhibit the hyperactive form of ADHD while the inattentive form is more common in girls. Because its symptoms are not as easily observable, inattentive ADHD is often hugely undiagnosed in children, especially amongst girls and young women. Boys are over three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, and even in adulthood they are still twice as likely to be diagnosed.

Little girl daydreamingThere are a number of reasons for this, one of the main ones being ADHD in women remains significantly under-researched to this day. Women weren’t included in findings from studies on ADHD until the late nineties, and weren’t given their own long-term study until 2002. 

Another crucial reason, and one that has no doubt contributed to the lack of research into ADHD in women, is the way gender norms in society to this day have created a sense that women are inherently sensitive, emotional and passive, while men are more serious and active. When girls and young women exhibit symptoms characteristic of inattentive ADHD, they are dismissed for being silly daydreamers. If they act impulsively, which in boys would be identified as a symptom of hyperactive-impulsive ADHD, it is simply because they are a bit of a tomboy. 

Girls and young women are also more likely to cover up their ADHD symptoms by adopting the behaviour of those around them. Maddi Derrick, a clinical psychologist who directs an ADHD specialty clinic in Hobart and who herself lived with undiagnosed ADHD for much of her life, says that ADHD can also be under-diagnosed in girls and young women because they mature socially and emotionally more quickly than boys. 

According to Derrick, this means that they are “probably a bit more aware and focused on how others are viewing them” than boys with ADHD. Girls and young women with ADHD often try very hard to concentrate to hide the signs of their ADHD, so that in school teachers see someone who is just talkative or “daydreamy” rather than someone struggling with ADHD. 

Derrick describes experiencing a sense of “internal hyperactivity” throughout her school years, getting easily flustered or blowing up as her ADHD made it difficult to control her emotions. Yet she says it took her many years to realise not everyone felt the way she felt, and that not everyone’s mind is all “very, very busy, quite noisy, sometimes irritatingly so”.

While ADHD tends to be diagnosed early in boys, it is often overlooked in girls and young women until much later in life. Once women with ADHD reach their early to mid twenties, or their university years, their lack of self-regulation and self-management becomes more noticeable. Anthony Rostain, professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says that in university, women with ADHD have more of a risk of being susceptible to negative pressure from sororities or getting involved in things like recreational drugs because they have trouble managing impulse control. 

For many women, it isn’t until their thirties or forties that they are finally diagnosed. Noelle Faulkner, a journalist for the Guardian, has lived with ADHD for most of her life. As a child, she recalls being repeatedly told to “stop daydreaming”, “slow down” and “act like a lady”, while she herself felt “overwhelmed by the world” to the point where she disassociated from it to cope. 

After six visits to her GP in the space of two years, each one for the same unexplained exhaustion, she saw a psychologist who responded to her complaints by asking her if she was simply aiming too high. Her exhaustion was put down to the pressure for perfection faced by all women in her industry. It took experiencing numerous severe burnouts from feeling chronically overwhelmed and countless visits to various GPs and psychologists to finally get a diagnosis in her thirties.

Her experiences are similar to those of many women struggling to live with an illness they do not know they have, battling symptoms they cannot explain or seem to overcome. This struggle is multiplied for women with ADHD who are also mothers, juggling the never-ending demands of childcare as well as those of their career while their disorder wrecks havoc on their mental health. The medications many use to treat ADHD may get them through the day at the office, but tend to wear off by the time they get home, meaning that they have to manage the various demands of organising the house and taking care of their children with their ADHD at its full force. 

Mother at computer with children

For any woman with ADHD, managing their disorder so they aren’t completely overwhelmed can seem utterly impossible. It can be challenging, but there are a number of simple yet crucial steps women can take to make life not merely bearable but enjoyable. Medication, psychotherapy and mental health counselling are a few of the most common treatment options both for coping with symptoms of ADHD and for offering support for those with the disorder and their loved ones. 

Terry Matlen, psychotherapist and author on ADHD in women, offers some easy survival tips that women, especially mothers, with ADHD can employ to improve their lives. The first, and possibly the most important, is that women accept that they have ADHD. Matlen says it is hard for women to acknowledge that they aren’t perfect, and particularly that they need help, but that it is essential women just “accept (their) ADHD and go with it”. The second is to ask help from their family members in whatever way they need it. 

Matlen states, delegating tasks around the house not only gives mothers with ADHD the help they need but also helps teach their children responsibility. She also recommends that mothers explain their symptoms to their family, keep a calendar with colour coded schedules for each family member, and establish quiet zones free of technology to minimise distractions during quality family time. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is when a child or adult has difficulties in managing behaviour that causes them to easily lose focus, act impulsively or being hyperactive.

In cases of ADHD, different parts of the brain don’t communicate in the typical manner, causing difficulties in social situations, learning, expressing feelings or controlling their behaviour.

Common symptoms of ADHD in a child can fall into two categories: inattentive symptoms and hyperactive and impulsive symptoms.

Inattentive Symptoms include:

  • A lack of close attention to details causing ‘careless’ mistakes.
  • Difficulty following instructions and finishing tasks like homework or chores.
  • Is easily distracted, and often by little things.
  • Has trouble remembering everyday things.
  • Avoids tasks that require a lot of mental effort like schoolwork or homework.
  • Doesn’t seem to listen when spoken to.
  • Has trouble getting things in order or doing things on time.
  • Often loses things like schoolwork, pencils, books, wallets, keys or mobile phones.

Hyperactive and Impulsive Symptoms include:

  • Fidgeting a lot and an inability to sit still.
  • Runs around/climbs on things in inappropriate situations.
  • Finds it hard to play or take part in activities quietly.
  • Talks a lot.
  • Is impatient and doesn’t wait for a turn.
  • Blurts out answers before questions are finished.
  • Interrupts other people’s conversations or games or uses things without asking.

October is ADHD Awareness Month and in 2019, ADHD Support Australia wanted to reduce the stigma and stereotypes surrounding this common condition and debunk some of its most widely believed myths.

Here are some common misconceptions of ADHD debunked:

  • ADHD is a common medical condition in which the brain develops and functions differently, resulting in hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour.
  • It is estimated that approximately 1 in 20 Australian children have ADHD in one of the three forms: inattentive, hyperactive and combined.
  • The development of ADHD does not occur from ‘bad parenting’. Rather, ADHD has a strong genetic link.
  • Treatment of ADHD is multifaceted including behavioural and cognitive therapy, making medication one of many treatments for this common condition.
  • ADHD affects both boys and girls, despite more boys being diagnosed. This is because symptoms of ADHD in girls present themselves more covertly than symptoms in boys.
  • Other mental health conditions often occur alongside ADHD such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. In fact, approximately 80 per cent of those with ADHD are diagnosed with at least one other psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.

A lack of understanding about ADHD prevents people from seeking help. By understanding the misconceptions, you are already contributing to beating the stereotype!

For more information, visit www.adhdsupportaustralia.com.au.

The old saying ‘you are what you eat’ supports the idea that without the foundations of a good diet you are wasting your time and money trying to balance your health. Shannon Burford, a naturopath based in Claremont, firmly believes a correct diet, herbal medicine and nutritional balance can make an enormous impact on an individual’s health even for those dealing with allergies, asthma, Autism, ADHD, infertility or cancer.

Meeting Shannon at his clinic, aptly named Cura Integrative Medicine, you become instantly aware of the aroma from the herbs and tonics on his shelves with names and labels not found in any commercial advertisement or local pharmacy. 

Over a pot of freshly brewed herbal tea, Shannon describes his own healing journey after contracting Dysentery and Typhoid while travelling through India and Cambodia in his early 20s. Already holding a degree in Science from Curtin University, Shannon realised the impact of nutrition on his health and while he appreciated the need for antibiotics, he knew working on prevention and building his strength from good food and herbs would see him on a better path for the future. 

His impressive resume now covers a Bachelor of Multidisciplinary Science and a Bachelor in Health Science (Naturopathy), he is also a Master herbalist and nutritionist, a lecturer in nutritional medicine, naturopathic philosophy and author in a variety of health topics, including cancer and men’s health. He is also a father of two. 

“The relationship between good food and behaviour now seems so clear,” he muses. “There is a need, a real urgency to understand the impact of what we put into our bodies. I want to educate as many people as I can and fuel the growing awareness that nutrition is a huge contributor to health. 

“You have no doubt heard people say ‘wholefood, wholefood, eat more wholefood because it is healthier’, right? Why exactly? It is all about the full package. With processing comes removal of the valuable nutrients. That is why brown rice is a better choice than white rice.” 

Another turning point in his life was the birth of his son, and realising the impact toxicity, allergies and ADHD behaviours have on children. Shannon said it was then that a passion in children’s health was awakened.

Naturopathy holds the core philosophy that the body can heal itself and everyone is an individual.
We live in a polluted world and eat processed food, with processing methods drastically reducing nutritional content.

Shannon describes his experiences as a parent of a child with terrible reactive eczema determined by allergy tests as fuelled by an exhaustive list of triggers such as egg, dairy, food colouring and sugar. His son was also diagnosed with asthma and prescribed ventolin.  

He recalls the day his son, then aged two and a half, ate a brightly coloured iced donut as a special treat and the transformation that followed, which he describes as nothing short of the Incredible Hulk, as his young son began wild screaming and hurtling furniture across the floor, an episode that lasted about an hour. Once older, and able to communicate clearly, his son described the headaches and other symptoms he suffered once exposed to sugar and food colouring. 

Today, his son has none of these issues. 

” HMA (Hair Mineral Analysis) is an invaluable screening tool to assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and preventative health care”

Shannon says whilst his primary passion is in evidence-based nutrition, he combines this with the power of herbs lifestyle changes. He explores his patient’s health like an iceberg, depicted by the small visible peak being the symptoms, yet his work is to discover what lies beneath the surface, hidden in our diet, environment and toxicity within. 

His diagnostic process is thorough, with calls for blood, saliva, stool, allergy and hair analysis as required, as well as diet, sleep, energy and behavioural discussions and observing the eye lids, tongue and fingernails among other things, to get the full picture on a patient’s health and tailor a precise treatment plan to suit.   

Naturopathy holds the core philosophy that the body can heal itself and everyone is an individual. One size does not fit everyone! A tailored diet and certain herbs can create an optimum environment for health,” he says. 

He is a strong advocate for Hair Mineral Analysis (HMA), especially for children due to its comprehensive results without the invasiveness of a blood test. The test is simply cutting a collection of hair from the back of the head, yet it can detect an excess or deficiency of vital nutrient minerals such as calcium, selenium, zinc and iron. It can also identify over-exposure to heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic or aluminium.  

“HMA is an invaluable screening tool to assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and preventative health care,” Shannon boasts. 

The results of the test have become quicker of late with a diagnostic laboratory now based in Perth rather than overseas. 

His HMA testing has confirmed Shannon’s belief that zinc deficiencies exists across the population of Western Australians, young, old, male and female, primarily attributed to our soils that fail to retain nutrients coupled with the growth of crops in the same soil over and over. So while foods like pumpkin and sunflower seeds, oysters, beef, wholegrains, egg yolks and seafood contain high levels of zinc, the very nature of the way those foods are grown may very well mean we still need something extra to keep our bodies balanced.  

People with zinc deficiencies demonstrate poor wound healing, prolonged infections, low appetite and kids may experience recurrent ear infections, sleep disturbance and anxiety.

“In an ideal world, we shouldn’t need a nutritional supplement or a herbal medicine mix if we were eating all living and whole foods. The reality is though, we live in a polluted world and eat processed food, with processing methods drastically reducing nutritional content. The body is also burdened with chemical preservatives and additives.” 

People with zinc deficiencies demonstrate poor wound healing, prolonged infections, low appetite and kids may experience recurrent ear infections, sleep disturbance and anxiety. Yet the physical signs may be as small as white marks on fingers nails.  

“A balance of the vital nutrients is important for optimal health and zinc is tremendously important for people of all ages, it supports a healthy immune system and the growth and development of the body during adolescence, childhood and pregnancy and is essential for men’s prostate and productive health. Lack of zinc has also been shown to have a clear link to anorexia and bulimia too. 

Get your kids eating oats for breakfast and start their day on the right foot. Shannon’s tip is to try making a pot of chamomile tea and use the tea to cook your oats. It will reduce anxiety and is good for the gut!

Shannon explains that good nutrition can also impact the severity of disorders such as ADHD and Autism in children, however he said for some parents it is hard to make the dietary changes in a society so busy and so focused on instant gratification with medications so readily available that offer noticeable and immediate behavioural modifications. He describes some parents returning to his clinic, sometimes years later, deciding to try the slower but longer lasting naturopathic and nutrition path, after becoming frustrated with the cycle of medications and behavioural management which left their child ‘under a cloud’ or ‘void of themselves’.  

Whilst it is unfortunate that the majority of people turn to Shannon after they have exhausted conventional medicine avenues, he still holds high hopes that one day preventative medicine will reach the forefront of his clientele. 

When faced with resistance or uncertainty from his exhausted and time poor patients about what their kids will eat, what they can afford or what changes they are willing to make permanently to their pantries, Shannon says it’s all about tailoring a plan for the individual. People will only make changes when they are truly ready, a small change for better health is better than no change, so slow substitution and reducing the sugar load is key. Obviously some families have reached the end of the line when they arrive at the spiral staircase which leads to Shannon’s quaint office and are willing to forgo all bad habits in search of better health. 

His best advice is to set your kids up for success by teaching them early on to make good food choices. Shannon explains eating healthy isn’t about restrictions, it’s about creating new habits. 

“The small changes you make to your child’s diet will ripple through their entire life,” he says. 

And yes, he does practice what he preaches, and so do his children. 

“I aim to eat as pure as possible, organic where I can to obtain the best quality. If the food comes from a box, I would say don’t eat it,” he says. 

“For breakfast my kids and I will eat oats with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, psyllium husk, a sprinkle of pro-biotic and maybe some frozen berries, with soy or rice milk. 

“But I understand that kids go to birthday parties and they love cheesy pizza and pasta, my kids are like most kids, we don’t live in a cave, but we don’t eat gluten or sugar and we don’t have the bad choices available in our home. My kids have grown aware of the ingredients in products and how food makes them feel and as such they aren’t interested in the coloured cakes or the lolly bags, apart from the bubble blowers.” 

For any food that does happen to come cloaked in cardboard, he is a big advocate for label reading.  

“The most important thing on the box is the ingredients list,” he said. “Check out the details of what it contains more than the standard breakdown of fat, sugar, carbohydrates and look at the placement of the ingredients on the list. Where is the sugar? If it is listed first, it means the product contains mostly sugar.”  

For more information contact Shannon at Cura Integrative Medicine 08 9284 4644, wellness@curamedicine.com.au, www.curamedicine.com.au