My Experience Being Neurodivergent & Having ADHD As a Latina

Growing up, my family, like many Latinx households, did not talk about mental health

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Photo: Matthew Ball on Unsplash

Growing up, my family, like many Latinx households, did not talk about mental health. Things like depression were diminished to just having bad days, anxiety was simply being silly, and ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) didn’t even exist. It was brushed off as bad behavior, not paying attention, or being hyper. It was usually met with some kind of discipline as well. You would hear family members say things like “quédate quieto” or things about respeto for not paying attention. Now I’m armed with the knowledge that nothing was ever actually wrong with me and I can finally understand that my brain works entirely differently than other people’s. Although I have not yet been formally diagnosed by a professional, I have been able to self-diagnose and know that I have ADHD. I also identify, because of that, as neurodivergent.

Neurodiversity describes people who process information and behave in a way that differs from the actual or perceived norms of a particular culture. It is usually associated with people who have autism, ADHD/ADD, or learning disabilities, among other things. People who have said conditions are also more prone to mental health issues including depression and anxiety. In the same category, there are also neurotypical people who are the opposite. They perceive and process information in an expected way for their culture and setting.

Often in Latinx families, there are certain cultural values that make it difficult for people to get the help they need. Things like keeping things within the family, spirituality/religion, and toxic masculinity. Also, most parents don’t see a need to get their children diagnosed with things since it’s seen as normal behavior that their children will outgrow. When we don’t grow out of it, we’re seen as huevona or dramatic or just plain loca. 

In fact, Latinx children are getting even less care than non-Hispanic white children. Even if they are diagnosed, they’re less likely to receive treatment. This is due to a host of factors like insurance, decreased access, and doctors’ biases, unconscious or not. One other factor is if your parents were immigrants because this in turn can affect how they see mental health. Both of mine were, and in fact, my mother had postpartum depression twice. She couldn’t afford help and it was again reduced to just being sad and she pushed through. This then led her to believe that the was the truth for everybody. All you had to do was ponte las pilas. This also brings another factor of gender roles because women are typically described as moody and not to mention how people so attribute behavior to “that time of the month.” 

As a child, I wasn’t horribly hyperactive and I could focus on things, but always the wrong things. As an adult I can see that physical hyperactivity is not the only symptom of ADHD and my lack of ability to focus on the right things wasn’t being disrespectful, it was hyper fixation. I would randomly space out, or dissociate, and end up being late to class with no proper explanation. I still struggle with these things, but now I can recognize them and communicate with those around me whereas before I thought I was just a bad person or student.

As more research focuses on ADHD and neurodivergency,  it’s clear this impacts many in our community. Scientists found a 43 percent increase in the rates of ADHD, as reported by parents,  national data analyzed 190,000 children between 2000 and 2011, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015. All ethnicities/races experienced an increase but the rate of increase was greatest among Latinxs at 83 percent and girls also showed a bigger rate of increase at 55 percent. 

I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who understand and by family who has since grown from the old-fashioned advice of “suck it up.” Sometimes though, they won’t always understand and I have to find a way to explain what living with ADHD as an adult can be like. So for those who may not understand what it’s like, let me paint you a picture of what a common occurrence looks like.

I could be working on a homework assignment and realize that I need to find a pencil, but my desk is messy so I decide to clean my desk. As I’m cleaning I become aware I need to dust so I go grab a trapo. I go to grab the trapo and see the watering can and remember I need to water my plants. I water all the plants but notice dead leaves which then remind me I should take out the trash, but before that, I need to throw out some old papers to minimize trips. As I look through old papers I also find my old writings and end up going down memory lane and spacing out until I remember that I need to finish my work. I sit back down and realize that I never grabbed my pencil.

Most people think I exaggerate because how do I ever get anything done if that’s the case? With great difficulty is the honest answer. Growing up with this kind of process was also not helpful when my mom would ask me to start the frijoles for dinner and then come home to find me in my room hyperfixating on something seemingly unimportant.

College was when I started realizing that I might actually not think the same way others do. I always thought that I would have known if I had something like ADHD because I thought I was so self-aware. Then some friends sent me some videos which were people talked about their experiences living with ADHD and I found myself relating to so many of the symptoms. I ended up taking an online adult ADHD self-assessment test. It made me realize that I more than likely was neurodivergent and I am now seeking to get a more formal diagnosis.

It took many different conversations with my Salvadoran family to explain that I could be neurodivergent, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. As I said before, I’m lucky in that department. By this point, my family was more accepting of things like depression and anxiety so it made it easier. Although I’m occasionally hit with the “la gente solo lo hace para llamar la atencion” argument, I know that I won’t be able to convince everyone that this is a real struggle and make sure to surround myself with those who are understanding.

If you are neurodivergent it’s important to remember that research is important. Looking into what it is and how it translates into your situation. If you want to help family understand, especially Spanish speakers, looking into research focused on the Latinx experience also helps in explaining.

Also even though getting a formal diagnosis helps in understanding why you feel the way you do, it doesn’t make it magically go away. Knowing can give so much relief and validation, but it can also highlight personality and behavior things that you may not have understood was ADHD in the first place which can be jarring. Remember that you are not alone and there is a whole community out there of people who can relate to your experiences.

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