No One Knew I Was Autistic and ADHD

Jillian Enright

I was making for so long, I lost myself.

Or maybe I never really figured out who I was.

By Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

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“She doesn’t have her own personality, she just acts like whoever she’s with.”

An observant, but cruel bully said this about me, I think I was about 12 years old at the time. As mean as this classmate was to me, this statement was actually spot on, but it was people like her that contributed to my attempts at blending in that she was now criticizing.

Who wouldn’t want to blend in with the crowd in an attempt to escape relentless bullying and try to fit in for a change?

Not to mention, having undiagnosed ADHD and being not-yet-identified as twice exceptional (2e) meant that I really did have an unstable sense of self. I knew I was different, and was being told every single day the ways in which being different made me less than my peers. Adults stood idly by and allowed this to continue, so I didn’t have a refuge with them either.

Little by little, I learned to adapt and change myself in order to avoid the constant mocking, belittling, and insults. Right at a time when teens are beginning to “find” themselves, here I was doing my darnedest to lose myself.

As Crocetti (2017) states,

“The biological, cognitive, and social changes that occur in adolescence stimulate young people to think about themselves, reflect on the kind of people they want to become, and find their place in society.”

At a time when teens are beginning to find themselves, I was doing my darnedest to lose myself.

Not me, I was busy reflecting on everything I had to become in order to stop the daily psychological torture that was my education. Crocetti concludes, “the extent to which adolescents find a stable identity is intertwined strongly with their psychosocial functioning and well-being” (Crocetti, 2017).

Well, crap.

What is Masking?

Masking is defined as an attempt to hide or conceal undesirable traits (Shaw, 2021). Who defines “undesirable”? According to McRuer’s crip theory, disabilities are culturally constructed categories that mark some individuals as deviant in order to support the primacy of the normative order (McRuer, 2006).

Well, that is certainly relatable. My peers decided, based on their own perceptions and experiences of how one should behave, that I was undesirable.

In the neurodiverse community, we conceptualize masking as hiding the outward symptoms of our disabilities in order to fit in with the majority neurotypical society.

When we mask our neurodivergence, we attempt to “achieve” and demonstrate neurotypical behaviour by using compensatory strategies (Livingston, Shah, & Happé, 2019).

Masking ADHD

Recent research at Dalhousie University (Shaw, 2021) found that participants with ADHD were most likely to mask three symptoms: inattention, verbal hyperactivity (aka talking too much), and fidgeting. For example, subjects described aggressively nodding as a form of masking.

Unfortunately, in doing so they diverted so much energy to presenting the outward appearance of attention, they actually missed a lot of what was being said.

College students also reported counting how many times classmates raised their hands during lecture or not participating at all for fear of talking too much in class. The symptom or behaviour students expressed feeling most self-conscious about was fidgeting. Students reported masking their fidgeting symptoms more than any other, citing concerns over how they would be perceived by peers and professors (Shaw, 2021).

The Downsides

This early trauma and masking left me with no idea who I really was. In my late teens, I was a mess. I was psychologically unstable and engaged in serious risk-taking behaviours. My self-worth was so low that I had no stable identity and tolerated horrible treatment from others, just to feel accepted by a peer group.

There are two schools of thought in the academic community on increased risk-taking behaviours in teens with ADHD.

One theory (eg. Pollack et al., 2019) is that executive functioning deficits leading to increased impulsivity and poor decision-making contribute to risk-taking behaviours in people with ADHD.

A more recent study by Dekkers and colleagues, (2020) controlled for stress in adolescents with regard to risk-taking behaviours. Their results revealed that stress increases risk-taking behaviours in all adolescents, irrespective of an ADHD diagnosis.

They concluded that susceptibility to peer influence is not exaggerated in ADHD, but rather reflects a general tendency of adolescents. Dekkers et al. (2020) theorized that adolescents who experience peer pressure as stressful are most susceptible to peer influence, so it is that which makes them more vulnerable to risk-taking behaviours.

That said, people with disabilities such as ADHD generally experience more stress in their daily lives due to their disabilities. There appears to be a a bidirectional, continuing cycle of stressors leads to enhanced symptoms, in turn leading to more stressors, and so forth (Hartman et al., 2019).

In other words, it’s a vicious cycle in which life stressors increase the severity of one’s ADHD symptoms, then those worsened symptoms subsequently increase the incidence of stressful events, and around and around we go.

All My Life’s a Circle

Sunrise and sundown.

If that didn’t make you dizzy enough, here’s another catch-22: Masking limits one’s self of self. Masking also increases stress. Increased stress increases emotional dysregulation, and reduced self-concept clarity reduces the efficacy with which we manage our emotions (Parisea et al., 2019).

Camouflaging may allow us to “pass” for neurotypical in certain situations, but we’re still divergent at the neurocognitive level, our brains are still different beneath our masks.

Even so, differences such as ADHD or autism are diagnosed by behaviour alone, therefore suppressing these behaviours actually makes it more difficult for us to receive accurate diagnoses. Compensation can result in support needs being underestimated in educational and workplace settings and is thought to contribute to poor mental health (Livingston, Shah, & Happé, 2019).

So, let me get this straight. I was bullied for being neurodiverse, so I masked my symptoms. ADHD plus masking increased my stress levels, which increased my emotional dysregulation. Masking also interfered with my ability to develop a sense of self, which in turn reduced my ability to regulate those emotions.

Well, I’ll be darned. At least there’s a happy ending.

Finally Finding Myself

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until the age of 36, and this likely only happened because my son had been diagnosed seven months prior.

In 2017, we moved to a new community and met a few of the local families. We connected with one family in particular for a number of reasons. Initially it was because our sons were classmates and became friends. Turns out the boys are both twice exceptional with ADHD, something we didn’t find out until well after they had already struck up a close friendship.

Luckily, our two families get along extremely well, and the parents have become close friends of ours.

The real bonus of this friendship is that we can all be our true, authentic selves and never feel judged, looked down upon, or rejected. Our friends totally get it. We accept each other for who we really are and have a fantastic time being our ridiculous selves.

I’m nearly 40 years old and this is the first time in my life when I can say I have a meaningful friendship in which I know who I am and feel valued for who I really am.

I can only hope to offer the same acceptance and security to my friends and to my son.

(c) Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

References

Crocetti, Elisabetta. (2017). Child Development Perspectives. Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Dynamic of Forming and Consolidating Identity Commitments. Child Development Perspectives, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12226

Dekkers, T.J., Popma, A., Sonuga-Barke, E.J. et al. (2020). Risk Taking by Adolescents with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a Behavioral and Psychophysiological Investigation of Peer Influence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 48, 1129–1141. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-020-00666-z

Hartman, C. A., Rommelse, N., van der Klugt, C. L., Wanders, R. B. K., & Timmerman, M. E. (2019). Stress Exposure and the Course of ADHD from Childhood to Young Adulthood: Comorbid Severe Emotion Dysregulation or Mood and Anxiety Problems. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8(11), 1824. MDPI AG.
Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/jcm8111824

Lebowitz, Matthew, S. (2013). Stigmatization of ADHD: A Developmental Review. Journal of Attention Disorders, 20(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054712475211

Livingston, L. A., Shah, P., & Happé, F. (2019). Compensatory strategies below the behavioural surface in autism: a qualitative study. The lancet. Psychiatry, 6(9), 766–777. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30224-X

McRuer, Robert. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NYU Press. https://nyupress.org/9780814757130/crip-theory

Parisea, M. Canzib, E. Giulia Olivaric, M. Ferraria, L. (2019). Self-concept clarity and psychological adjustment in adolescence: The mediating role of emotion regulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 138, 363–365. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.10.023

Pollak, Y., Dekkers, T.J., Shoham, R. et al. (2019). Risk-Taking Behavior in Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a Review of Potential Underlying Mechanisms and of Interventions. Current Psychiatry Reports, 21(33). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-019-1019-y

Shaw, Hannah, M.B. (2021). “I Don’t Suffer from ADHD, I Suffer from Other People”: ADHD, Stigma, and Academic Life. (Honours thesis). Retrieved from https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/80523/Shaw%20Honours%20Thesis_%20Final.pdf

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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