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"Emily's Story: How Neurodiversity Impacts Girls & Women"

Emily’s Story: How Neurodiversity Impacts Girls & Women
By: Samantha Maloney

In 1993, a girl named Emily started her first day of kindergarten along with 18 other peers. She was excited to be in a new school; this one was so much bigger and seemed more fun than her old school. As Emily’s mom turned into the school parking lot, she spotted two playgrounds instead of one! One had tall monkey bars with poles on the side for climbing, and the other had a set of uneven bars (just like the ones she used in gymnastics!) Emily clutched her mom’s hand, as they happily marched to her classroom. As both Emily and her mom entered through the doorway, Emily spotted a tiny, pink bumble bee sticker right above the doorknob. It caught her eye because it was interesting and fun. How many more interesting things might Emily get to see today?

When Emily and Mom stepped further into the classroom, the whole class was already seated quietly and working. Everyone’s eyes caught Emily’s, so she quickly dropped her hand from her mom’s. 

“Hi ladies, I’m Mrs. Caren, and you must be Emily!” Emily’s teacher smiled. Before Emily could say anything, Mrs. Caren continued, “…And I knew it was you because every other student arrived on time. I hope you learn to get yourself out of bed earlier, Emily.” 

As the teacher announced Emily’s tardiness, the class smirked, giggled, and whispered to one another. Emily’s cheeks turned bright red. Something about what Mrs. Caren said seemed unfair. Emily was up at the crack of dawn and was certainly out of bed! She and her mom hadn’t discussed when to arrive at school and what was expected of her. After all, Emily’s only five and certainly could not drive. Emily froze and looked at Mrs. Caren. The words I’m sorry were stuck in her throat, and she clung to her mom for support. Maybe the first day of kindergarten wouldn’t go as well as she’d hoped.  

Emily hugged Mom goodbye and walked to the only empty seat with her face down, so she wouldn’t have to lock eyes with any of her classmates. She looked and saw everyone writing their names on a long sheet of paper, so she raised her hand and tried to get Mrs. Caren’s attention; Emily wanted to make a name tag, too. 

Mrs. Caren was organizing her own desk and didn’t see Emily’s hand waving back and forth, so Emily asked her neighbors for some paper and scissors instead. As Emily’s classmates passed her some supplies, Emily dropped the scissors, and her cheeks flushed red again. Mrs. Caren stomped over, glared at her, and firmly stated, “Emily, in my classroom, we all raise our hands for help, and we don’t throw scissors.”

Of course, we do not! Emily thought to herself. She knew the rules and wanted to agree with Mrs. Caren, but the words would not come out. Emily was embarrassed. 

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Mrs. Caren questioned.

“I-I-I’m sorry,” Emily stuttered.

She felt a sense of injustice but didn’t know how to put what she was feeling into words. On top of being late and dropping the scissors, the entire class just heard her stutter. Emily gulped and took a deep breath to hold back tears. Mrs. Caren and the other kids didn’t seem to notice that she was sad.

When the first recess came, Emily was happy to get a chance to run around. It was hard for her to stay in her seat all day, so she was ready to play! Emily went up to the uneven bars and hung upside down— a stunt she’d mastered in gymnastics. Although Emily felt confident and had done this trick a thousand times at higher heights, Mrs. Caren scolded her and told her to get down. “Are you being safe, young lady?” Mrs. Caren yelled out to Emily.

“Yes, I am!” Emily yelled back proudly.

Excuse me?!” Mrs. Caren raised her voice.

“You asked if I am b-b-being safe. Y-y-yes- “ Emily answered but was quickly interrupted.

“Go to the principals’ office, young lady! Do not talk back to me!” Mrs. Caren ordered. 

Emily’s heart sank. It was the first day of kindergarten, and she couldn’t help but feel like she’d messed everything up. Why did the kids and grown-ups seem so cold, strict, and backwards at this new school? She was told she had good manners at her old school. Why were things so different now?

*  *  *  *

Out of fear of saying the wrong thing, Emily sat silent at the principal’s office and sobbed with a box of tissues. The principal arranged for a parent-teacher conference later on in the week, and Emily couldn’t help but feel like a failure. When it was time to walk back to class, Emily found Mrs. Caren’s room herself by spotting the pink bumble bee by the doorknob. 

She would later find out that she was the only kindergarten student who ever walked herself back to her classroom and knew her way around the whole school. She’d been studying the school map on her fridge for a week now, but no one seemed to notice her keen sense of direction for a five year old.

In fact, no one seemed to notice anything great about her. She was the fastest kid in class, but her shoes were untied, so the gym teacher disqualified her 50 meter dash time. Emily was also the only kid who knew subtraction, but Mrs. Caren had only told her to, “…Remember that for next year and focus on getting all the addition problems correct first. And with better handwriting!” 

When spring arrived, students were being tested for the Gifted and Talented program, and Emily’s parents knew she’d be a good fit. But when Emily’s mom and dad asked Mrs. Caren if Emily can get tested for the GT program, Mrs. Caren replied, “Not yet. I think Emily needs to work on not being such a scatterbrain first.”

What’s a scatterbrain? Emily thought. Having sharp intuition and language skills, she knew that scatterbrain = bad and couldn’t bear to learn the meaning of the word. Emily always knew she was different and used to think that her differences made her special, in a good way. Now, Emily felt sad and isolated as she thought of her differences. 

“I will hide what’s wrong with me and get into the GT program,” Emily decided to herself, ”I want to be smart again!” 

From that moment on, Emily learned how to mask her ADHD symptoms. She got into the Gifted & Talented program the following year and learned how to hide signs of disorganization, clumsiness, and never spoke back to her teachers again. 

As she grew up, she became a people-pleaser, often saying “yes” to events  and projects when she wanted to say “no”. Emily would often quit sports after receiving a few critiques. It took her a long time to understand the meaning of constructive criticism, as her R.S.D. and masking symptoms were always at the forefront of her brain.

Throughout Emily’s years as a student, she overworked herself and suffered in silence because she hadn’t developed time management skills. When her work was late, she was punished and told she was lazy. Emily often heard from teachers that she was so smart, and she can’t let “laziness and sloppiness” get in the way of her future. When college came around, Emily wasn’t able to finish tests on time. She even had a hard time writing down all the notes in class, since it was difficult for her to listen, learn, and write all at once. 

At age 23, Emily finally received a late diagnosis of ADHD. When she turned 32, it became apparent to her that she also had motor dysgraphia. The diagnosis was Emily’s first step in realizing that maybe her “laziness” wasn’t her fault all along. 

Today, Emily’s story is told because it reflects many injustices and stigmas that girls and women with ADHD face in their academic careers. Girls with ADHD often go undiagnosed or are diagnosed much later than their male peers. They often people-please and develop a way to mask their symptoms at an early age. Yet, while they mask, they experience shame for not being “enough” or having themselves more “put together.” Without various supports, a positive awareness of LDs, and how to leverage their strengths, girls who think differently often feel isolated and broken. They grow up to become women who often stretch themselves too thin due to societal expectations becoming a modern, superhero mom.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s important to break down stigmas that keep girls and women who learn and think differently from experiencing success and joy, both in and out of the classroom. If we can celebrate young girls’ differences with them , they can learn to focus on what they are good at and advocate for themselves, as they face adversity.  These strong girls become powerful women who change the world by understanding, embracing, and celebrating their neurodiversity. 

 

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Samantha Maloney/March 27, 2023

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