Voices: I wrote a book starring a teenage girl with ADHD – then I realised I probably had it too
When my dyslexic daughter first discoveredHarry Potter, she went from a reluctant reader to a serious book lover overnight.
She would battle line by line to keep up with the story and would read a single page several times until she felt she understood. It was a triumph to see her engage with literature and fill her world with written words.
But, unlike her peers, I noticed that my little girl, who was awaiting an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis, never engaged with Hermione Granger. There was a brief period of crimped hair and thick fringes, but for a girl who spent a good 12 months living as Minnie Mouse, I was surprised to see her detachment from the central female role in the book series she otherwise loved. For my excitable, neurodiverse nine-year-old, with her belly laughs and fidgety feet, hyper-organised Hermione was not a girl she could identify with.
Around the same time, I began reading a new adventure book to my son, who has both ADHD and dyslexia. Opening the first page, I began to read about a little dyslexic girl who was alone at school and struggled to fit in, and who would (in a few chapters’ time) embark on saving the world from an alien invasion.
Before I could get to the juicy part, my son interrupted me: “Not another book about a kid with dyslexia. Let me guess, they are alone and miserable until they save the world, and finally, everyone thinks they are okay.” I was just about to tell him to hang on for the good bits when I realised he was right!
For so long, I had read my children books where beautiful people were adored, clever people solved problems, brave people won battles, and dreamers made dreams come true. But a glimmer of neurodiversity in a book, and we knew there would be a long enduring struggle to overcome until they would finally feel accepted. As a writer and a mum to a neurodiverse son and daughter, I wanted to be a part of celebrating the beauty of the neurodiverse mind in literature.
So I got to work.
Over the next few months, the essence of a character began to form. A young girl, 13 years old. She would be fun, exciting, intelligent, creative, intuitive, pioneering, and loved by all of her family and friends. She would also be chaotic, at times clumsy, impulsive, feel the sharp pain of social rejection, and yet struggle to roll with the social norms. She would be brilliant and complex in equal measure.
As this girl became firmer in my mind, I gave her a name: Antigone Kingsley. And, as her story began to fall onto the pages, I was hit with a sudden reality. Antigone wasn’t just like some of the complex, neurodiverse people I love – she was like me!
I began to reflect on my childhood, and I saw the same impulsivity, drive for excitement and chaos that surrounded Antigone. I remembered feeling earnest, hyper-focused, and hardworking; but I also had the capacity to zone out for long periods of time, or feel infuriatingly bored and disrupt things, just a little, to get an adrenaline hit. I could be the most focused person in the room or the one at the back, messing around or lost in a daydream. The more I reflected, the more I found the ADHD expressions in Antigone (or "Tig" as we call her) a part of me.
Having spent months growing compassion for Tig, there was a surge of inner compassion for myself too. Knowing why I missed deadlines and had a perpetually empty fridge helped me ditch the guilt of “poor adulting”, and instead search for strategies. I took time to create systems and workarounds in the day-to-day, leaving me more time in creative flow. Now, after years of playing catch up on the everyday, I’m left with more time for those neurodiverse strengths of hyper-focus and imagination, giving me the space and drive to finish that book!
My journey is anything but rare, as women and girls often slip through the net in terms of diagnosis and support for neurodiversity. Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed for ADHD than girls, largely because girls are often more adept at "masking" and imitating normal social behaviour, which can lead to suppressed guilt or shame about the struggle to conform to the status quo.
As a culture, we have had so many generations of literature where we confine the identity and personality of girls to neat boxes – bossy, clever, pretty, or bold. But when the neurodiverse person can have so many of those elements all in the same day, it can be hard to fully identify with the characters they come across, leaving them feeling more isolated and unseen.
We need to give our neurodiverse girls mirrors – places where they can see people like themselves, so they can start to see and understand themselves. The more we embrace and popularise the chaotic, spontaneous, big-hearted, creative powerhouse of a girl who zones out when she isn’t hyper-focused, the more we give our ADHD girls permission to be who they are.
Marina Magdalena’s latest book About Last Summer, which tells the story of a teenage girl with ADHD, is available to buy now