At least one in five New Zealanders are classed as neurodivergent, a label that covers conditions such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia - yet society insists everyone should be “normal”. No Such Thing as Normal, a 10-part NZ Herald podcast with broadcaster Sonia Gray, explores how we can do better.
When we think of ADHD, we usually think of young boys who can’t sit still, are disruptive in class and have behavioural issues. But this neurodevelopmental condition is much more complex.
“The most important thing to know is that ADHD is not a behavioural issue”, says clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Watson. “Yes, there are behaviours that sometimes come with it, but that’s just the part we see. The behaviours are the result of a brain that works differently, one that has real challenges managing distractors and controlling emotions”.
Dr Watson is speaking on Sonia Gray’s NZ Herald podcast, No Such Thing as Normal. She says women and girls with ADHD are often better at keeping their behaviour in check, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. “With females we’re inclined to see anxiety rather than what we think of as typical ADHD behaviours. Women are much more likely to do what society is expected of them – which is to please. And they are better at suppressing their emotions and ‘masking’. But that comes at a cost”.
Broadcaster Hayley Holt was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago and says she does a lot of masking. “People think I’m quite self-controlled and quite calm, but that’s because I am just sort of stopping all of the expression on my face because it’s so intense in my head. If I was showing you how I’m feeling … it would just be chaos. I might appear calm and quiet but it’s not like that on the inside”.
Holt says school was a real struggle for her. “I just thought I was lazy and couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “I used to get reports back saying, ‘doesn’t try hard enough’ or ‘needs to apply herself more’.”
But she loved doing exams. “I needed that intensity of a deadline – I loved that. But school projects … I just couldn’t do them.”
Host Sonia Gray was also diagnosed as an adult but says she didn’t really accept it at first. “I had this idea of what ADHD was and it wasn’t me”, she says. “I thought my life-long anxiety and inability to get things done was me just not trying hard enough”.
Gray says this is common for women, who often are misdiagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder. “Adult women are the most underdiagnosed of all the demographics when it comes to ADHD – we fly under the radar”, she says.
“I would love that to change.”
It wasn’t until she read about some of the lesser-known symptoms of ADHD - emotional sensitivity, time blindness and boredom intolerance – that it all started to make sense for Gray.
“Boredom hurts,” she says. “And I don’t mean having nothing to do - my mind is always on. But having to do mundane tasks can feel almost impossible.”
ADHD coach Alex Campbell says this struggle with the ho-hum aspects of life is a universal problem for those with the condition. He says the difference is neurological.
“The dopamine transmitters in ADHD brains don’t regulate themselves in the same way they do in someone that doesn’t have ADHD”, he says.
“We need dopamine for motivation so if a task isn’t interesting, it can be exhausting”.
Campbell was one of the first 40 children in Britain to be diagnosed with ADHD back in 1990.
“Our brains are interest-driven, not importance driven,” he says. “If something is not interesting to us, it can almost feel disabling. But that doesn’t mean we don’t care. These two things are not linked.”
No Such Thing As Normal was made with the support of NZ On Air.