AuDHD – A Maze of Emotions and Relationships

For girls and women with ADHD, ADD, and autism (sometimes abbreviated as AuDHD), social norms and expectations can become a demanding challenge. In this blog, the experienced neuropsychologist Maria Bühler, explores the maze of emotions that many women with neurodevelopmental diagnoses encounter. You’ll receive tips on smart support and strategies for navigating social interaction.

The expectations of girls and women

Being a girl and a woman often means being socialized in taking on the responsibility for relationships and emotions. Many girls and women testify how they early on in life felt expected to carry the emotional backpack in families, workplaces, and society. Perhaps this expectation stems from the fact that, on a group level, women find it easier than males, to understand and empathize with others.

Even when you are born with autism society will still have these expectations of you. 

You are expected to show greater interest in others’ feelings than boys do. 

And when you become a parent, the responsibilities resting on you as a mother may differ from that of the child’s father. You are expected to intuitively understand your child, take the initiative in social interactions with other children and take responsibility for buying gifts to preschool staff. 

There are many places to misstep if you struggle with unspoken social rules. Despite Sweden having a generous and gender-neutral parental leave policy, mothers use the majority of parental days. 

Emotions and relationships can be a demanding challenge with ADHD & autism.

Unwritten rules of female friendship

And then there’s the issue of friends and the “female way of socializing”. Often synonymous with an interest in friends, a desire to have many friends, and perhaps your very own circle of “girlfriends” that you hang out with throughout life. 

This can be a painful clash for girls and women with autism and ADHD. Even though female friendship has many advantages and is sometimes described as more profound than male friendship. There are numerous unspoken rules that one is expected to “understand.” And what’s the deal with all the sugar-coating? 

The language sprinkled with “oh, how cute of you” or “Oh, you’re just the best!” 

Simply put a lot of fluff. This can be a nightmare if you have autism and prefer to talk about what you are interested in. Then fluffy self-evidences may seem both meaningless and strange. 

On a group level, one might get the impression that male friendship and the male way of communicating are somewhat more autistic. Not so much “fluff”. And doesn’t it kind of go without saying, that you appreciate the other person if you take the time to sit and talk? This and much more is what distinguishes individuals with ADHD and autism from those without the diagnosis. It has been eloquently described by Clara Törnvall in the book “Ordinary People” (Swedish).

To blend into a social jungle

Women with autism and ADHD often struggle to fit into social norms. For example, the woman who doesn’t really need friends but puts so much effort into getting them. That is because she wants to show her partner that she is “normal”.

Or the woman who got comments about how cold she comes across in text messages and then sends heart emojis in all her text messages ❤️, even to the dentist and the foot care specialist, just to avoid hurting anyone. 

This emotional jungle is both exhausting and confusing. It wears on one’s strength and self-esteem to never quite know how to navigate social interactions. Not to mention the negative feelings when you realize that you have made a mistake, despite turning yourself inside out. 

Like the woman who now sends heart emojis to everyone and received a reprimand from the foot care specialist who found her message “intrusive and inappropriate.”

Stop being such a Drama Queen!

Navigating emotions is an extra challenge when you have both ADHD and autism. And you may live in the perfect emotional storm. A feeling of throwing furniture on the inside without a ripple is shown on the surface. 

Except that you might respond a bit too “snappy, aggressive, or cheeky” according to others. Something that, in turn, creates distance to others and questioning of your own emotional experiences. When, which is common with both ADHD and autism, it might be difficult to recognize signals from the body (interoception), it is often difficult to identify what emotions you are experiencing in the moment. 

Maybe you feel numb or confused when you get angry or sad. Only to be completely overwhelmed by your emotions a second later. Maybe you start screaming, throwing things or harming yourself. 

Losing control and screaming at someone else, for what others may consider a trivial matter, is challenging for relationships. 

Others keep their distance; rumors may spread that you are unreliable or “completely crazy.” 

If you have both autism and ADHD, emotions can become impulsive and unpredictable. Maybe others think that you are manipulative or a “drama queen” or perhaps you get diagnosed with borderline.

Need for support and smart strategies

So, what do girls and women with autism and ADHD need, based on what we know about their difficulties with emotional dysregulation?

  • During childhood, there’s a need for adults who can guide in various social situations and who are attentive when there is relational turmoil. Not dismissing it with “girls can never play in a group.” Because it might not just be “quarreling”, but situations that are confusing, incomprehensible, and unfair.
  • As adults, women with autism and ADHD need to find others who function similarly. There is a need for insight that their way of communicating and relating may be different but not wrong. Sending hearts and writing “hugs” can be one way, but they may need several tools in the toolbox.
  • Girls with autism and ADHD need help regulating emotions, through adults who can keep calm. As adults, we can avoid screaming, punishing or giving warnings, as it is often perceived as frightening or humiliating. Self-regulation is difficult when in a state of arousal, and the first step for us who want to help, is to maintain calm.

    The older girls become, the more receptive they are to new strategies and advice. This may involve breathing techniques (breathing in a square), diversionary strategies such as pouring cold water on the wrists, eating sour candy or taking a hot or cold shower.

The path to emotional balance and social security

Remember that the foundation for wanting and being able to accept help and support is feeling accepted and validated. When it comes to emotion regulation, it’s about understanding and communicating that the way of reacting is not wrong, just different. 

Probably, we all, regardless of whether we have a diagnosis or not, would need to practice not being so afraid of our own or others’ emotions. Don’t you agree?

Keen on more? Read Maria’s previous ADHD & autism blogs:
Assessment of girls and women with ADHD and autism
Struggling to fit in and be accepted

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