Attention Deficit Disorder and Gender Differences

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ADHD is a disorder affecting 8 to 10 percent of school-aged children, though it can last into adolescence and adulthood. Symptoms include hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. Children with ADHD often have trouble sitting still, staying on track, and paying attention to the details of a task. Conventional treatments include stimulating and non-stimulating drugs, psychotherapy, and behavior therapy. Non-conventional treatments include dietary supplements such as Omega 3 fatty acids, amino acids, and various stimulating and calming herbs. A look at the gender differences in ADHD children reveals three times as many boys diagnosed as girls.

Boys With ADHD

According to Lesley Jamison, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Columbia, S.C., in addition to being diagnosed more often, boys are up to nine times more likely to be referred for evaluation and treatment. Jamison believes this difference is because boys display more behavior problems than girls. Boys often are referred because of oppositional aggressive and conduct behaviors. They can be disruptive in the classroom, causing their teachers to have to pay attention to them and seek help in dealing with them. A US national survey to determine gender perceptions of ADHD bore out the belief that ADHD is more prevalent in boys. Most of the general public (58%) and teachers (82%) believed so. The conclusion of the survey point to gender having important implications in both diagnosis and treatment of ADHD.

Girls With ADHD

Although more boys are diagnosed with ADHD in childhood, by adulthood the numbers are about the same, pointing to girls being diagnosed much later in life. The inattentive type of ADHD which includes symptoms of being easily overwhelmed and having trouble with time management and organization is the type most often found in females. Women with ADHD also tend to have other disorders affecting mood and behavior such as compulsive overeating, sleep deprivation and alcohol abuse. The rate of major depression and anxiety disorders is equal to men. Since ADHD does tend to run in families, often women end up being diagnosed when one of their children is diagnosed. They recognize the same symptoms within themselves. Being diagnosed later in life can cause a woman to blame herself when things go wrong or believe she can’t achieve higher goals, especially if she had problems in school.

What We Know

Ernest J. Bordini, Ph.D., reports on the first longitudinal study of ADHD girls into adulthood. Approximately 120 girls with and without ADHD were followed for a period of 11 years, ending around age 22. The findings showed a greater risk for antisocial disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, developmental disorders, addictive disorders and eating disorders. These are the same risks documented in longitudinal studies of boys.

The American Psychological Association reports that historically the research on ADHD has focused almost exclusively on hyperactive little boys, then more recently on adult ADHD. The recognition of females with the disorder has lagged even further behind. This is due both to the current diagnostic criteria, which is more appropriate for males than females, and to parent and teacher referrals, both influenced by more acting out behaviors in males. Gender differences in ADHD children reflect this bias.

Julia Rucklidge began studying women with ADHD when working on her doctorate in psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada. She studied 102 women between 26 and 59 with a child with ADHD. She found women with ADHD were more likely to have a “learned helpless style” of responding to negative situations and more likely to blame themselves. Women with ADHD were more likely to believe they were unable to control the outcomes of events and to report a history of depression and anxiety. Clearly, many of these women fall through the cracks of early diagnosis and because they are untreated, their lives often fall apart during adulthood.