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The ADHD Tax

A Late Diagnosis

Neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense. It emerged as a challenge to prevailing views that certain neurodevelopmental disorders are inherently pathological and instead, adopts the social model of disability, in which societal barriers are the main contributing factor that disables people.” — Wikipedia, Neurodiversity

When I was in the middle of the 2020 lockdown, I, like many elder Millennials, joined TikTok. One day, I was mindlessly scrolling through my For You Page, where you get videos from creators that the algorithm believes you will like based on how you have interacted with past posts. A video popped up of a man who said, “This is how I clean with my ADHD brain.” He proceeded to explain his system, and I laughed because it seemed like normal cleaning routines to me. But I pushed the like button. More ADHD content showed up, and much of it felt relatable, even though I didn’t have ADHD. The more I related, the more I began to wonder. So I started doing more research and discovered a website called ADDitudemagazine.com. It was written and reviewed by physicians, so I felt the content was most likely accurate. 


I took a diagnostic test on their website, which I then showed to my doctor. After a few tests, she confirmed that, yes, I did have ADHD (or Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Being diagnosed with a disability at 38 years old is odd to process. You begin to look back at your life and, the more you learn, the more it all starts to make sense. You realize maybe you haven’t been the total failure in life you once believed yourself to be. Considering you exist in a world that isn’t set up for how your brain functions, you’re actually doing pretty damn good. 


The ADHD Tax

But what does it mean to live in a world that isn’t set up for how your brain functions? You can lump much of it into a single concept: the ADHD Tax. In the same way that many products marketed towards women cost more, resulting in a pink tax, the ADHD Tax is the price you pay for your brain not aligning with how society is structured to function. The tax can be anything from forgetting to pay a bill and having to pay a finance charge to not being as successful in school or your career, resulting in lower wages over your lifetime.

A few statistics:

  • People with ADHD are more likely to be overweight and obese due to their lower ability to regulate impulse control. This lack of control can also result in higher balances on credit cards, lower credit scores due to impulse shopping and dopamine-seeking expenditures.
  • People with ADHD are more likely to suffer from addiction, anxiety, and depression.
  • Children with ADHD hear, on average, 20,000 more negative comments about themselves than neurotypical children will by the time they reach the age of 10. This statistic means shame, guilt, and low self-esteem often goes hand in hand with ADHD, especially in girls, who are less likely to receive a diagnosis.
  • People with ADHD are more likely to be in car accidents and receive workplace injuries. This, combined with other factors such as higher rates of smoking, unhealthy diet choices, and procrastinating colonoscopies and preventive care visits, actually reduces the lifespan of people with ADHD when compared to neurotypical people by an average of 13 years.

You Just Need to Focus

One thing someone with an ADHD brain needs is organization. This is also one of the hardest things for an ADHD brain to find. Often the advice supplied by successful, neurotypical people for improving and organizing your life and space just doesn’t work. ADHD is a disability that affects your attention, but that doesn’t mean you always struggle to focus. Sometimes it means you get so focused on what you are doing, you lose track of time, stay up late, and forget to eat or shower. Your brain constantly swings from being completely unfocused and unable to do anything to being hyper focused and wanting to get everything done all at once. Advice like, “Create a routine where you do the same thing every day at the same time” is impossible to follow. 

 

Executive Dysfunction 

Part of the reason this happens is called executive dysfunction. ADHD affects your prefrontal cortex, which manages the function between seeing something that needs to be done and doing it. The executive function looks at a problem, breaks it down into steps, and then — if you are neurotypical — sends messages to the rest of your body to complete the task. But if you have ADHD, any one of those steps in the process can cause a jam in the system. 

Here is a real-life example that happens to me all the time. I reach for a shirt for my son as I am getting him dressed in the morning and there are no shirts left in the drawer. A neurotypical person’s brain would simply notice the clean laundry sitting above the dresser and grab a shirt. For me, however, when something messes with my automatic movements, everything comes to a grinding halt. 

I freeze, staring at the empty drawer. My mind goes completely blank. I am overwhelmed with physical exhaustion. After a good 5-10 seconds, my brain slowly starts to grind forward again. I stare around blankly, as the collapse of the automated routine has made me forget what I was doing. I look at my hand and see a pair of shorts and underwear, and my brain has to go back a few steps to figure out what else my son needs. I realize I don’t have a shirt for him, remember why, and only then do I see the clean laundry and the solution. Those extra steps have slowed down my whole morning routine. If that happens with 5-10 things every morning, suddenly I’m late, and the tax keeps adding up. And don’t even get me started about what happens if the clean laundry is still in the laundry room and I have to get it to finish the task. You don’t want to know.

 

Object Permanence

Another thing that sets neurodivergent people apart from neurotypical people is object permanence. This is why tips like “Always leave your keys by the door, so they are ready when you need to leave” don’t work. You can’t make a conscious choice of where to put your keys if you don’t even notice you have your keys in your hands. Say a neurodivergent person walks in their door with their groceries while talking on the phone. Focused on other things, they toss the keys onto the couch as they kick their shoes off. The keys fall into the couch cushions and will later make them late for work (another tax to add to the others). Object permanence can also look like putting a cocktail dress in the back of your closet, forgetting you own one, and going out and buying a new one when you need a cocktail dress. Being out of sight literally puts it out of mind and the money spent is another tax. Object permanence is why many ADHD people have clutter and messes in their house — if they put things away, they may forget they have them, so keeping their possessions visible simply works better. 

 

ADHD and Genetics

ADHD is often genetic, and now that I have a diagnosis and understanding, I can say I absolutely inherited it from my mother. She keeps her phone, wallet, and keys all on one chain because she is constantly losing them. She can’t keep her phone charged, so we usually call my dad if we need anything. She has purchased thousands of reading glasses over the years because she takes them off and leaves them all over the house. I remember once as a kid, all four kids helped her look for her purse for a full 30 minutes before my brother noticed it was slung over her shoulder the entire time. 

Because it is passed down it can be harder to recognize the symptoms. I was raised in a house with a very ADHD mother, so I thought many of the traits associated with ADHD were totally normal and just how people work. It took people on social media breaking down the symptoms to realize that the way my brain worked wasn’t typical. 

Without early access to therapy and awareness, many people struggle to function in a world that doesn’t understand their disability (ADHD is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can be grounds for work and school accommodations). This is why awareness of this ADHD tax is so important. Understanding it will help remove the barriers that neurodivergent people struggle with so they can better contribute to and benefit from our society.



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