Fitting in at school: ADHD and friendships

High School friendships are hard for everyone

High school reunion. Is there another event in your adult life that induces such a polarising response? For some, High School was the peak of popularity and connection, the beginning of lifelong friendships. For others, especially those struggling with ADHD and friendships, it was a lonely place to be endured, where free time was more difficult than tests or homework.

I recently attended my own High School Reunion. It’s been many years, yet I was still incredibly anxious attending. I’m not even sure how I got myself to the door.

You see, I could never quite fit in at High School. Making and maintaining friendships was like a foreign language to me. I didn’t pick up on social cues, couldn’t play team sports because I had terrible balance issues, and I was more emotional. Worst of all, I felt that I was the problem.

If only I had a magic wand to go back and explain ADHD and neurodiversity to my younger self. At least now, even without a magic wand, our children (especially our previously missed young girls) are more likely to have a diagnosis and a teacher trained in working with neurodiverse children. Now we have some options.

The challenges of ADHD and friendship

Whilst everyone’s experience of being neurodivergent is different, there are a few common threads for those of us with ADHD that impact on friendships.

Overwhelm and boredom – two sides of the same ADHD coin

The ADHD brain can swing quickly between extremes, sometimes finding it difficult to commit attention and time to friendships, then simply finding them boring because their brain jumps around a million thoughts and their friend focuses on merely one. The inconsistency can make others feel that you only reach out when you have nothing better to do.

Looking like you don’t care – poor memory, distraction and disorganisation

Friends will naturally feel that the people who ask questions and remember what is going on in their lives are their true friends. Unfortunately for those of us with ADHD, it’s hard enough to remember our details, keep our diary organised, avoid getting distracted on the way to meet you, let alone remember the details of your life that ‘show’ we care.

Social anxiety and rejection sensitivity disorder

These two often coexisting diagnoses are commonly associated with ADHD. Making friends requires reading situations, body language and even emotional meaning. These can all be super challenging when you have ADHD. Add in years of being rejected for simple miscommunications or miscues, and putting yourself out there to make friends can feel more like walking with a tiger.

Social supports at school are available

Being neurodiverse in a neurotypical group at school can be like finding out you are a square peg in a round hole. Unfortunately, in Australia, there is currently no real funding for schools to support neurodiverse students unless they meet specific Autism criteria.

This often means the onus is on parents and carers to advocate for their children with ADHD, often educating teachers along the way. Luckily, most teachers want to see all their students succeed and are only too happy to help.

Individual Learning Plans (ILPs)

Parents of any child struggling to achieve their potential can request an Individual Learning Plan (ILP). Your school may also initiate the conversation. An ILP outlines your child’s learning goals, how neurodiversity impacts them, how the school will support them and what reasonable adjustments or strategies are agreed upon to help each child participate and learn and meet their individual needs.

ILPs can include social support. For example:

  • Ben finds it challenging to self-select into a group. It helps if teachers define groups for everyone so he can focus on the work itself.

Neurodiversity awareness workshops

It can also help to speak with your child’s classroom teacher or year-level coordinator about informal ways the school can assist, or ways they can broadly improve understanding. Some schools get great results from running educational workshops around neurodiversity for the student body, or relevant year groups. We recently presented at a Sydney school for just this reason. This is what teachers had to say when we were finished:

Some points of highlight for the students were their interest in the scientific explanation of neurodiversity and the brain, the ability to ask questions and feel part of the experience and the way in which you discussed neurodiversity as a collective experience, making those who are neurodivergent feel a greater sense of belonging and those who know neurodivergent people understand more about their behaviours, feelings and executive functioning. 

I am hopeful that we will have more opportunities to work together in the future on our shared mission for creating inclusive, safe, respectful, educated and understanding environments for us ‘neurospicy’ folk. 

Your child’s tribe might be outside of school

Just because your child is alone at school does not necessarily mean they are lonely. They may be more comfortable in their own company, taking a break from masking at recess and lunchtime.

However, we all need to be socially supported and connected in some part of our lives. Sometimes, the best way to find your tribe is to look for like-minded people who share your interests, such as groups for chess, taekwondo, or online gaming communities.

NOTE: Online gaming communities can be a fabulous source of community. One of my 12-year-old clients struggles at school with bullying but has their own YouTube Channel and has flown with Mum to meet friends he made through YouTube. The key is age-appropriate supervision and ground rules. The e-Safety Commissioner has great resources to keep kids safe online.

Other times it can help to find a group designed to help build social skills with peers. Here in Canberra, we are fortunate to have several organisations set up specifically to build neurodivergent communities.

  • Daydream Machine – Supporting young people with all forms of disability, including neurodiversity, from 9-21 years of age to explore and build their talents in music, arts, and technology. Parents think kids learn in a safe and inclusive space, while kids think they are ‘doing cool stuff’.
  • Ignition Gamers – With so many of our neurodivergent teens and young adults turning to video games for entertainment, Ignition Gamers builds on that passion bringing teens and young adults together to play in person and develop confidence with real-world relationships.
  • Dice 4 Diversity – Originally established to provide social education in a fun environment utilising role-player games like Dungeons and Dragons, Dice 4 Diversity is now a strong community of school-aged tweens and teens who enjoy attending weekly social ‘skills’ sessions and return over school holidays just for fun.

At Social Living Solutions we understand how hard it can be to ‘fit in’, especially around ADHD and friendships. We work with your child to achieve their unique social goals, whether that’s understanding how neurotypical friendships work, finding a tribe outside of school, or leaning into passions and being comfortable as they are. There is no agenda here. Book a free call today.

ADHD symptoms in girls. Does my daughter have ADHD?

ADHD symptoms are often different in girls. As medical knowledge evolves to understand more about these differences, so does our ability to identify and help our young girls at an earlier age.

For decades, ADHD diagnosis was limited by a myth that ADHD only affects young boys because they are more likely to exhibit the more outwardly apparent symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. As recently as 2013, it was also classified as a disruptive disorder of childhood (before the age of 7) only, which caused problems for girls whose symptoms are often noticed at puberty.

Now we understand that ADHD can impact boys and girls of all ages, with varying presentations of symptoms. Save your daughter from the challenges of living with unsupported ADHD by being aware of the differences and seeking diagnosis and support if appropriate.

ADHD symptoms in girls and young women

Of the three ADHD presentations – hyperactive, inattentive, or both, boys will usually present as hyperactive, which is easy to notice. Girls often present as inattentive, which can be much easier to mask, hide, or go unnoticed. Instead, adults may label them spacey, lazy, or just overly talkative. This suggestion that their symptoms are instead personality flaws can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and a failure to seek proper diagnosis later in life.

Diagnosing ADHD as early as possible provides access to effective treatment, which can change her whole experience of the world. Symptoms to look out for in girls include:

  • Daydreaming, zoning out, or appearing not to listen. She may look zoned out because the hyperactivity is in her head. This can lead to rumination and being lost in many threads of thought simultaneously. Watch for school reports advising that, ‘She would do better if she just focused.’
  • A young girl sits at a table covered in coloured pom-poms with her hands to her face daydreaming into the distance.Disorganisation, mess, and difficulty managing time (executive malfunctions). She might make rushed and silly mistakes, forget daily activities, constantly lose things, or seem incapable of getting ready in time.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Difficulty staying focussed or becoming easily distracted may show up as a tendency to procrastinate long projects until the last minute or look bored when attempting to absorb new or complex information.
  • Emotional sensitivity, anxiety or sadness. Girls with ADHD may cry or become irritated more easily than their peers. They may be seen as ‘over emotional’ and struggle to process their feelings.
  • Challenges making friends. Impulsivity in girls can present as interrupting and talking out of turn. She may also have difficulty interpreting what is and is not socially acceptable. Combined with all of the above, these symptoms can make building and maintaining friendships difficult.
  • Poor self-esteem. Years of worrying, trying to fit in, being accused of laziness or ditziness, and working twice as hard to concentrate or do as well as expected can take a toll on your daughter’s opinion of herself.

Masking ADHD symptoms to fit in

Girls’ ADHD symptoms are not only different but also commonly emerge later, with puberty, exacerbated by hormones only to get mistaken for ‘normal’ puberty-related issues. Many girls are also unintentionally socialised to achieve, please others, and avoid making trouble.

In an attempt to fit in and meet these social expectations, your daughter may mask her symptoms, hiding them through learned behaviours so that no one knows she is different. Common masking among girls includes:

  • Mimicking and copying other people’s behaviour for acceptance.
  • Developing perfectionist tendencies.
  • Bottling up emotions until they feel sick without even knowing why.
  • Excessive note-taking to help memory later.
  • Reacting as expected rather than as felt.
  • Obsessively checking belongings to avoid forgetting or misplacing something.
  • Staying strangely quiet or being overly careful in every word.
  • Constant (often ineffective) attempts to establish systems to keep life organised.

While these masking techniques can make life easier for her on one level, always wearing a mask is very tiring, and she is still struggling. You may notice an emotional crash when you collect her from school, tears over her own imperfection, or constant mimicking of whichever friend she spends the most time around.

Ways to help your daughter with ADHD

The first step to helping your daughter is to get her an ADHD assessment and be sure what you are dealing with. Your GP can refer you to a paediatrician, child psychologist or child psychiatrist who can assess and (if applicable) treat her for ADHD.

However, to fully support an older daughter, you should start by speaking with her about her symptoms. Ask open questions and give her space to share what she wants. Maybe it’s stress, something you said, or a genuine change in who she is and how she feels about the world. Mention ADHD gently at first. No girl, especially at puberty, wants to hear that there is something wrong with her, and many may still think of ADHD as a boy’s problem.

Unfortunately, wait lists for an ADHD assessment can be long. While a diagnosis allows your specialist to prescribe medication, which can be life-changing, there are other things you can start to do right now that can make a big difference too.

Be patient

Give her only one or two instructions at a time. Ask her to repeat them to be sure she heard and understood them.

Be consistent

Children (and many adults) with ADHD, may think they want lots of variety to stimulate their brain but actually thrive with clear, simple rules and routines they can rely on.

Break it down

As your daughter gets older and teachers ask her to complete more complex projects, the task may cause more stress than expected. Help her break it down into steps and make a plan.

Seek support

You do not need a referral to see an ADHD coach, and it doesn’t matter to us whether you have an ADHD diagnosis or not. We work to help manage symptoms regardless of what causes them. There are also some fantastic support books and podcasts available. Encourage her to find one she relates to and take whatever she can from it.

Look for the good in your daughter

People with ADHD are often fantastic at a particular special interest or discovering novel solutions to problems. They may be highly creative or oddly intuitive. Her empathy might make her the most caring and supportive person you will meet, or she may be wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with her ADHD. Let her know that you see her strengths as well as the areas where she needs support.

Social Living Solutions provides coaching for high school students and adults of all ages. Our coaches have lived experience with ADHD and can help you manage your symptoms with or without a diagnosis. Contact us today to find out more.

Empowering Our Children

Empowerment.

This is a word that is used a lot. In my work as a Global Ambassador for Taryn Brumfitt’s “Body Image Movement”, we constantly talk about empowering girls and women to love and embrace their bodies.

When I look at the parallels of this movement and trying to achieve the same goals for our special needs children and individuals, I wonder how we can empower them to embrace their differences and love themselves.

To be on the ‘autistic spectrum’, have ‘dyslexia’ or ‘ADD’, are still labels that carry a stigma. And this is shocking, considering that 1 in 68 children have autism and 1 in 10 have ADD! There are some conditions such as dysgraphia and dyspraxia where there are no tangible statistics yet.

Going back to my statement that it is a label that carries a stigma, I know from my clients who are high functioning autistic or ADHD or ADD, that the children themselves do not want their peers to know and their parents do not want their children’s friends and families to know.

Not only do these children have all of the learning and social challenges that these conditions impose on them, but they also feel shame and are trying to hide it.  The amount of pressure on them is incredible.

How as a society are we empowering our children or adolescents at all? There are young girls and boys with image issues who feel ashamed and hate themselves, because of different physical attributes of their bodies that they have no control over.  There are LGBTQI children who also feel shame, self-loathing, hatred, confusion and believe they are a burden to their families.

Then there are our many special needs kids (from mild special needs to severe), who also have the same feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing, hatred of themselves and belief that they are a burden to their families.

So I ask again: how are we empowering our children?

 

 

It’s Not About a “Cure”

I ended my last blog with: “As a society we care too much about other people’s ideas of what is and what is not appropriate, rather than the effect our actions and behaviour will have on the ones we should love and support the most.”

For all my life I have been a strong advocate of accepting others – regardless of sexuality, ethnicity or religion. This also extends to those with disability.

I question why there are always media articles and press related to the causes of autism, ADD and ADHD, such as articles about new research that suggests there could somehow be a “cure” for these conditions.

I recently came across an article about autism, in which an individual commented that it’s like what happened with homosexuality – people were (and some still are) trying to find a cure! Homosexuality is now more widely accepted, though I acknowledge not totally, as part of human diversity. So I ask: why is autism, ADD and ADHD not seen in the same light?

Why are we constantly making these individuals feel as if there is something wrong with them and that there is something to cure? Why do we not simply support them and make them feel comfortable in their diversity, and nurture the strengths and gifts they have to offer?

As well as a general lack of acceptance is the guilt that is dished out via the media and social platforms to mothers. I recently read an article that there are direct links between vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy and autism. At the time I thought, “Do mothers really need anything more to feel guilty about, or to worry that perhaps they could have prevented their child having autism!?”

At times it appears that we are too quick to criticise and chastise those with these “conditions”, rather than accepting them and giving them the support they need to feel like valued members of society. We make them feel that they have a “condition” to be cured, rather than just accepting their differences.

When these reports come out in the media, I see individuals with autism whose self-esteem and self-worth is strongly affected.  It further adds to their feelings of inadequacy and belief that they are a burden to their families. All these media reports do is fuel the idea that these are conditions to be cured like diseases.

When you consider that individuals with ADD, ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia and other similar conditions have a high propensity for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, why is it OK to make them feel more inadequate, anxious and depressed with these reports?

These individuals need to be given the support they need to feel empowered; to know that they are valuable members of society with much to contribute through their strengths, rather than focussing on their weaknesses.

 

“Mildly” Autistic: What does this mean for the individual?

If you have it (Autism) mildly, you are at the awkward mid-point of being “normal enough” for everyone to expect the same from you as everyone else, but “autistic” enough not to reach these expectations.

Chris Bonelli – autisticnotweird.com

Hot air balloon being inflatedReading this got me thinking; when a child is “mildly autistic’, or in the old DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has “Aspergers”, their family, friends, and others would not necessarily know – unless the child and his/her parents decide to share the knowledge.

This then places the individual with “mild autism” sometimes in situations of extreme stress and dilemma.  Occasionally even their immediate family can “forget” or overlook that the person has autism.  This is because most of the time the person is functioning well. They may only experience sensory “overloads” when they are extremely tired, hungry or over-exposed to the stimuli that causes the sensory overload.

This often leads to situations where the person’s family gets annoyed with them, and can cause frustration for the person on the autistic spectrum and the rest of his/her immediate family.

For example, the family may go out to dinner with their extended family who may or may not know that the individual has autism.  The child who is “mildly autistic” is particularly tired and hungry when they arrive at the restaurant but they have failed to communicate this to their parents.

When deciding what to order, the child asks for a particular favourite item on the menu that everyone likes.  The mother, knowing that her autistic child really likes this item, orders what she thinks is ample for everyone plus additional for her child.

Well into the meal, the item has been demolished by everyone.  The child then has a meltdown and starts crying stating how they only got to have one portion and how they had in their mind that they were going to have three.

The mother, who is embarrassed, reacts by chastising her child and makes her child feel as if she is disappointed in them. This then leads to a further meltdown by the child who then makes comments to the effect of how they are not good enough and how stupid they are.

This is an all too common scenario.  The child’s self-esteem is now affected, as children on the spectrum often have low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety and depression.

This is a real concern when individuals are “mildly autistic”, even though the parents generally will be really well informed and supportive of their child.  Naturally for the mother, other factors come into play such as the tolerance and tiredness levels she is experiencing at the time, and any other external stresses.

What I find interesting is when a child is at this “mild end” of the spectrum and have “high executive functioning” how easy it is to forget that the individual has autism at all. Then depending on the individual’s day, levels of tiredness and exposure to overwhelming sensory stimuli, their nervous system may be put into “overdrive” and the smallest incident will set them off into a full meltdown. This can lead to depression anxiety for the individual where they self-doubt and self-loathe.

I then wonder why do we expect our children on the spectrum to be the models of excellence around age-appropriate maturity, when we ourselves often choose age-inappropriate behaviour, interests or activities? Even in this example, the mother chastising her child in such a way that the child knows the mother is disappointed in them – rather than the mother focusing on the behaviour and commenting on what she did not like about the behaviour (rather than the individual).  The mother’s reaction will have a profound effect on her child’s self-esteem and confidence.

As a society we care too much about other people’s ideas of what is and is not appropriate in regards to behaviour, rather than the effect our actions and behaviour will have on the ones we should love and support the most.