How I Passed As Neurotypical For So Long

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The descriptors neurodiverse and neurotypical were two of the first words I encountered when I connected with the ADHD community on Twitter. If you’re not familiar with them, a couple of down-and-dirty definitions you can work from are these:

Neurotypical: describes those who have a brain that works in a typical manner.

Neurodiverse: describes those who have a brain that works differently.

Like I said, down-and-dirty. The biggest, tallest part of the bell curve is full of folks with typically-developed and typically-functioning brains. Most expectations you encounter in life, whether they be at home, school, work, recreation, etc., most of the expectations are set up with the neurotypical average in mind.

Learning those terms helped me tremendously, as they put in perspective what I was facing. My whole life I had operated under an incorrect assumption—that I was neurotypical. Given that assumption, when I failed to meet expectations I simply blamed myself. Learning that I was neurodivergent—that my brain actually works differently than others’ do—was life-changing.

When the idea of having ADHD was first brought up to me, my mind rushed back in time and immediately began identifying all of the signs I had missed along the way, and ADHD had run rampant through all parts of my life, for as long as I can remember. At that point my biggest questions were how anyone looking at me couldn’t have known and how could I have not known about my ADHD? These questions ultimately led me to the the underlying question for this post.

Covering ADHD symptoms

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 37 years old. At that time I found clear evidence of ADHD in my life going back as far as I can remember. So what gives? I’ve already addressed why I didn’t get diagnosed as a child, so today my focus is on my adult behaviors. I had developed many strategies, coping skills, and masking behaviors which effectively covered many of my ADHD symptoms and thus made it possible for me to hide in plain sight in the neurotypical world.

Pina created a comic that really resonated with me on this subject. Seen below you’ll see how anxiety can effectively lead one to mask many aspects of ADHD. Many of her shown examples are true for me as well. The thing with masks is they’re not real. They give the appearance of wellness, but they are simply covering the internal struggle.

So how did I pass as neurotypical for so long?

First, I have a lot of strengths that the neurotypical world loves.

  • Being creative
  • Starting projects I’m excited about
  • Problem-solving
  • Performance
  • Talking the talk
  • Pulling off great work under pressure
  • Helping others
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills

These help me to navigate most tough situations. When my feet are put to the fire and I’m up against a deadline (which I probably procrastinated) or a major consequence, I am doing my very best work. I am excellent at job interviews because it’s a performance. To me an audience acts like a deadline and flips that switch of unimportant/disengaged and all of a sudden I care immensely and can hyperfocus in that moment. I rock interviews.

But I also have a lot of weaknesses and/or ADHD symptoms that I have learned to cover, mask, or otherwise support or accommodate so that they are not obvious to the casual observer. Here are some of the things I have done to mask ADHD symptoms. Mind you, I was doing all of these things before I knew I had ADHD. They developed naturally as I tried to make up for or hide my shortcomings (as measured by neurotypical standards).

Things I was doing that masked or hid symptoms:

  • I was drinking 5+ cans of Diet Coke per day. Only after I learned about how stimulants interact with the ADHD brain did I realize this was actually a rudimentary form of self-medication.
  • I have carried the same fidget in my pocket for over 14 years. I have always used it when meetings get too long.
  • I rely heavily on Google Calendar to know where I’m supposed to be all the time.
  • I have taken mental health days regularly throughout my career, particularly when facing high anxiety or intense stress
  • I have used home as an outlet for negative emotions and behaviors that I simply cannot show at work without major consequences.
  • I am hyper aware of things like my phone and keys because I am prone to losing them. It’s almost an obsession to not let them out of my site or their places.
  • I take notes during meetings to help me listen to what’s being said.
  • When all else has failed, have flat-out lied to cover up symptoms.

So what does this mean for me now?

I know now that my brain works differently from neurotypical brains. So I can let go of the notion that I need to meet every single standard in the neurotypical world. Sure, there will always be some I can’t get away from or can’t make accommodations for. But I’m better about picking my battles now. I forgive myself more easily. I don’t simply get down on myself for being lazy or incompetent. I get to set my own bar.

I reach out to other ADHDers to gauge how they might respond to situations I’m in. I helped create an online ADHD support group largely for that purpose—so that when I’m not sure if the thing I’m facing is an “ADHD thing” I can quickly find out. Learning more about ADHD and connecting with others who have it has continued to be a critical part of my personal development. I also seek treatment for my ADHD through medication and therapy. By combining reasonable expectations with effective plans and meaningful supports, I find it easier than ever to navigate the neurotypical world.


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Author: Jamie

At 37 I went to therapy and after two hours she asked if anyone had ever talked to me about ADHD. Surprise! I'm @ADHDsurprise on Twitter.

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