Overdiagnosed as Over-the-Top

“She’s so extra.”

I first heard this term last year. My friend John’s wife said it about someone we both knew. She’s a woman of color and works at a high school. She also has a son in middle school, so she is probably more up-to-date than most people when it comes to slang.

I absolutely love slang. It’s just so damn creative. When I hear a new word or phrase that really nails it, I have a strong urge to incorporate it into my vocabulary right away.

Extra means–according to the best urban dictionary definition– “doing the absolute damn most. For no good reason.” I heard it another time at a school board meeting when an anti-sex ed parent passed out a Dillard comic comparing sex ed to upside-down balls. You kinda had to be there. A (white) high schooler sitting behind me said to her dad, “So that lady’s so extra she went and made these to pass out to everyone? Wtf?”

Slang generally has origins in Black culture and is immediately appropriated by white people who want to sound cool. On fleek. Spill the tea. Bae. Anything -izzle. Why do we rely on Black culture to sound cool? Well, it’s really hard to be ‘cool’ when you have no culture, or feel like you don’t because you’re the default culture. It’s so hard to identify what white culture even is, how can we know? Searching for it is kinda like looking at those 3D pictures that were popular in the 90’s–you had to kind of soft focus and hold it at the perfect distance to see it–the shark jumping out at you from all those marbled lines.

So, like the team from Bring It On who came in second place (for a crash course on appropriation, please review this movie because I don’t think most of us got it in 2000), I’ll try to describe my experience without relying on Black culture to do it for me.

Over-the-top.

Annoying. 

Excessive.

Going too far. 

Obnoxious.

Out there. 

The words always seem to be about women, don’t they? She’s so over-the-top She gets on my nerves. She’s so…out there. She’s so annoying.

My daughter’s classmates started to describe one another as “annoying” around the middle of fourth grade. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s such a vague term and so absent of any understanding of the person’s intent. If you ever have the chance to read Queen-bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, I highly recommend it whether you have a preteen/teenage daughter or not. It’s an extremely well-researched analysis on the patriarchy as viewed through the prism of social aggression in teenage girls. It is also the inspiration for Mean Girls, which (aside from the landline conference call and a burn book instead of social media humiliation) is still completely relevant. Tina Fey literally called the author out of the blue and said, “I think what you are doing is really interesting, and I’d like to make a film about it.” Incidentally, there is a failed attempt at white slang origins in the movie when Gretchen tries to make fetch a thing.

As an outspoken girl and woman, I have heard the terms above plenty of times and it actually used to confuse me. The words are just as powerful when they’re used to describe somebody else, because they tell a girl what not to be. I understood what was expected and tried to fit those expectations most of the time, but it seemed whenever I let my guard down or I spoke up, there was some kind of punishment. It was usually the invisible kind, a look or a comment that felt like getting hit on the nose with a newspaper. Compared to women without ADHD, it seems that women with ADHD display more characteristics that will be perceived negatively by others because of how women are expected to be.

Think about it. What is it that society still values from women? Since I’m a woman who violates these norms regularly, I’ll go ahead and make a list off the top of my head.

  • Being a good listener
  • Putting a huge list of others (including spouses, children, work, school, and friends, even total strangers) before themselves
  • Being warm and empathetic
  • Being compliant
  • Being supportive of other people’s goals in thought and action
  • Being soothing
  • Always choosing connection over autonomy
  • Being calm, cool, and collected

Now compare them to the ADHD brain:

  • trouble paying attention in the presence of external stimuli
  • controlling arousal or emotions
  • planning (other people’s shit) and organization (of others’ agendas, not just our own)
  • internal distraction
  • recalling details
  • prioritizing tasks

While I know many of my best friends and women I work with choose to violate the norms of what is expected from women, the pressure to meet these expectations is still there and we are forced to navigate them if we want to get something done. This puts us in a position of having to hide healthy assertive traits in many situations.

My kids have been at the same elementary school since PreK. I’ve volunteered at the school countless times, have decorated bulletin boards, teacher’s doors, have chaperoned a million field trips, have been on the campus advisory committee for years, and have volunteered with PTA.

I’m also not afraid to advocate, for racial equity, for gender bias training, and for Central office to come explain decisions they’ve made about our school. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I sense that aside from my friends there, the staff seems to walk on eggshells around me. I spoke to the principal recently about some funding that has been taken away, and I was asking her questions about it, and she exclaimed, “Yes, question them! I’d much rather you direct your fire at them than me!”

“Wait,” I said, “do you feel under fire by me?”

“Well,” she said, looking away, “you question a lot of things.”

The principal is a woman of color, so I asked her: “Does that feel disrespectful to you?”

“No,” she said. But who knows. I see myself as inquisitive and a good advocate. I guess that can be interpreted as scary to some. Most of my questions have been about accessibility and equity. If there’s a fundraiser, I’m usually asking, “Where is the free stuff that people can do, seeing as how our school is 67% free/reduced lunch?” Let’s set up a construction table, or a craft toward the side of the event. Let’s not charge for Santa pictures, since about half of the PreK class can’t actually afford to buy them.

In general this is where I keep my focus. But I also tend to overdo it. Like this year, when I asked the principal if she’d get rid of cupcakes at the school. I don’t actually care that much about cupcakes, so I didn’t prioritize that correctly. It’s hard for me to filter out what I should or should not bring up at times. There was a huge outcry about this idea and the response was basically, “The Latinx culture wants cupcakes here, it’s an important part of how we celebrate, and no one wants a white woman telling them how to eat.” Fair point. I dropped it and thought about how I could be better about that next time. I also wondered why I brought it up in the first place. In terms of equity at the school, it wasn’t a big priority, so why did it come to the forefront for me this year? I’m thinking it might be an ADHD thing. Planning. Prioritizing. Thinking before acting.

The last time I was told that the Latinx culture would not be open to something, it was about learning about gender bias through Welcoming Schools. I had to call bullshit on that one. I’m not going to accept that Latinx people are inherently for gender stereotyping and gender-based bullying. Also, hello, there are LGBTQIA+ Latinx people in the wild with us, people. I’m sure they’d also appreciate that educators are interested in learning how to support them and their children. Luckily, that was a win and we got it into the school just before the district killed it (and not in an appropriated slang kind of way).

Now that I’m reading about the ADHD brain, I’m seeing a way that my history of impulsivity, sense of urgency, and tendency to look at the big picture vs. details and strategize with others (vs. standing up on the desk to deliver an impassioned speech) has influenced my activism in the schools and elsewhere. Learning how to take a break before acting and to reach out to others doing this work has been an excellent practice for me.

However, I can’t help noticing that men never seem to be penalized for speaking up or questioning things. I’ve seen it in staff meetings, and in politics, and well, just about everywhere. They’re forever giving their opinions or shutting things down or making flip comments and it never seems to be a problem. They’re not annoying. They’re not over-the-top. They’re not out there. Assholes, maybe. Clueless. Mansplaining. That’s about all that is said about them. Very seldom have I seen a reaction to their assertiveness in a group other than an aside between women after the meeting has ended. “Ugh, he’s so entitled.” In the meeting, it’s usually hard to tell if people are viewing him negatively, as they do when women speak out.

For women of color, especially Black women, this perception (and consequences resulting from that perception) is even worse. This extends to Black girls as well. In education, Black girls are punished more than any other group. A 2011-12 Department of Education study determined that Black girls are six times more likely than white girls to face out-of-school suspension. Offenses that can result in disciplinary actions for Black girls include “being defiant” or “disrespectful” to an adult. Clearly, girls with ADHD could demonstrate these characteristics just by being themselves. Also included in the DOE study was the state-by-state disproportionality of disciplinary actions against children served under IDEA. For example, in Texas, children served by IDEA, whether through special education or 504 plans, made up 9% of the student population. However, of the students subjected to physical restraint at the school, 79% were students served by IDEA.

Let that sink in for a moment.

According to data from a 2013 study in Pediatrics, Black children were 69% less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. If girls are also less likely to be identified, then Black girls are likely even less likely to be identified. That means that Black girls experiencing the intersectionality of disability, diagnosed or undiagnosed, are likely being penalized for not fitting into patriarchal expectations of their behavior.

One thing we can count on is a dearth of research about Black girls. But we can connect the dots, right?

If a Black girl is even less likely that a white girl to be identified as ADHD, then a Black girl with ADHD (or any other disability, identified or not) is extremely susceptible to disciplinary actions at school that could leave them feeling rejected and misunderstood by their school and community. It’s actually a vicious circle of being held to higher standards than their peers based on unconscious bias from adults in charge, punitive measures that devalue the student as an important part of the community, and a distancing from the group that further leads to feeling outcast and could then result in more behaviors that will be perceived negatively. The feeling that you don’t matter to your school community has been shown to result in poor grades and higher dropout rates. And so goes the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you want to evaluate how healthy a policy or mindset is, look at its effect on Black girls. If they are suffering more than we are or facing more consequences than we are, then it isn’t good for anyone.

So this perception that women should be understanding, compliant and basically “seen, not heard,” is something that hurts not just women with ADHD but all women.

I can’t wait until it is completely banished from our expectations of female behavior. In the meantime, I guess I’ll be one of the annoying, over-the-top, out there ladies asking questions and getting the stink eye for it.

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