Understanding the Asian-American ADHD Experience: Overcoming Stigma, Embracing Empowerment

The unique challenges & opportunities for the AAPI ADHD community

Published on
May 31, 2023

ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, affects millions of people worldwide, transcending cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. However, within the AAPI community, the intersection of ADHD and cultural expectations creates a unique set of challenges that often goes unnoticed or misunderstood. In this blog post, we aim to shed light on the experiences of Asian-Americans with ADHD, the cultural factors that influence their journey, and the opportunities for change and empowerment within our communities.

Before jumping in—a little disclaimer and note to be mindful of: ADHD manifests differently in every person, regardless of age, gender, culture, or sexuality. Moreover, even within the AAPI community, each culture, community, and family is uniquely intricate. So, please bear with me as I generalize a bit for the sake of brevity, and take what applies most to you.

Contextualizing ADHD for the Asian-American Community

There are two main types of pressures that uniquely shape the experience of Asian-Americans (or Canadians, in my case): those driven by our own AAPI cultures and those driven by American (or Western) society at large. These two forces collectively create challenges and opportunities for the ADHD community. By starting with awareness, we can begin to take action and make change.

AAPI culturally-driven pressures

The following are generalized cultural factors and expectations within the AAPI community that affect the ADHD experience:

  • Enormous value on education: The notion that success in school is everything puts massive pressure on students from a young age. This may lead a student to feel extreme shame and disappointment for not meeting the "most important part of life," with severe negative consequences downstream.
  • Cultural expectations around behavior: Many Asian cultures emphasize politeness, good behavior, and quietness. This can be challenging for people with ADHD, who may be more hyperactive, impulsive, and disruptive.
  • Family pressure to succeed: There is a lot of pressure to excel academically and professionally. This can be overwhelming for people with ADHD who are already struggling to keep up. Asian kids are taught not to "let the family down," which can lead to over-studying, shame, and low self-esteem.
  • Ingrained ideas of what is a “good career” path: Many Asian cultures place significant value on traditional paths like medicine or law while dismissing other careers as "lesser than." This means that people with ADHD, who are often highly creative and intuitive, are less likely to receive support for pursuing creative fields and may even face shame for considering such paths.
  • Idea that if you just “try harder”, you’ll succeed: Most Asian cultures highly value hard work, with positive outcomes believed to be linked to effort. When grades slip, the advice is often to "work harder" rather than finding ways to work with the person's ADHD brain.
  • Lack of culture around open sharing of feelings: Few Asian families, especially immigrant families, grew up discussing emotions at the dinner table. Parents are often unaware of their children's emotional experiences but know every detail about their quiz marks and test grades. This environment makes it difficult for students to share if they are experiencing difficulties with focus or emotional regulation—both common symptoms of ADHD.
  • Stigmatized to acknowledge mental health issue: In many Asian cultures, there is still significant stigma associated with acknowledging a child's mental health diagnosis, such as ADHD. Instead of seeking support and accommodations at school, the solution is often to "study more" and "work harder.”

Societally-driven pressures

Pressure doesn't only come from the AAPI community but is also mirrored back to us through society's expectations of Asians and the lack of culturally responsive resources.

  • Stereotypes that “Asians are smart”: If you're Asian, you've likely heard remarks like "Aren't you good at math?" or "But you're Asian." These stereotypes impose undue pressure on Asians, making us wonder if we're doing something wrong when we don't meet those expectations.
  • Pressure to live up to “Model minority” myth: The stereotype that Asians should be quiet, obedient, and academically gifted sets an extremely high and unachievable standard for most people, let alone those with ADHD. This leads to the adoption of a "model minority" mask, where we try our best to conform to these expectations while internalizing shame.
  • Lack of culturally responsive providers and services: Like many healthcare services, finding culturally affirming ADHD care is not easy. It is challenging to find healthcare providers who understand the unique cultural context and can provide appropriate lifestyle modifications that fit into the Asian-American context. As a result, generic recommendations applied without considering the context can be detrimental to individuals and families.

How ADHD can look different in the AAPI community

It's important to note that due to these cultural and societal pressures, ADHD may present differently in Asian Americans compared to our non-Asian peers. Without delving into the DSM-5 criteria, let's shed light on some of the differences below:

  • Masked symptoms: A common coping mechanism is "masking," where individuals make extreme efforts to act or behave in ways expected of them, which can take a toll on their well-being.
  • Perfectionism & good grades: Many Asians with ADHD are diagnosed later in life because they seem "fine" due to their good grades.
  • Lack of friends, hobbies, or life outside of school: Many Asians with ADHD spend double or triple the amount of time studying and sacrifice other aspects of their lives.
  • Extra studying, tutoring or remedial programs: Asians with undiagnosed ADHD who struggle in school often receive extra tutoring instead of undergoing psychological evaluations and receiving proper diagnoses. This can be caused by parental denial or a desire to avoid bringing shame to the family.
  • “According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the lack of data on Asian learning disabled children could be due to the fact that fewer Asian families report their children as learning disabled, due to the stigma.”
  • Other mental health issues: Internalized stigma and shame can lead to the emergence of other mental health issues or misdiagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, when ADHD may be the root cause.

Hear from Asian-Americans on their ADHD experience

  • Emily Unity: “I felt like I was a living contradiction, like "being Asian" and "having ADHD" were mutually exclusive. I battled for quite some time with impostor syndrome. My intrusive thoughts would tell me things like "I'm imagining my ADHD" or "I'm smart, so I should be able to overcome this", even though I would be surrounded by constant reminders of my symptoms.”
  • Malia Young: “People who dismissed my ADHD and ADD just assumed I was “not smart,” and that was a “fault” of my parents. For many, there is no such thing as ADHD and ADD — they believe this is just a cover-up for laziness.”; “I felt like I was running a race with a weight tied to my ankle.”
  • Mathangi Subramanian: “There’s the way men tell me I’m “super loud for an Asian girl.” Or the way my bosses tell me I’m “entitled” for asking why the men in my department are paid more than me. Or the way relatives tell me I’m “scary” when I set boundaries in a quiet, even voice.”
  • Emily Chen: “I spent much of my life suffering intense, relentless anxiety to get myself through classes, my undiagnosed ADHD screaming for help while the model minority myth prevented me from seeking or obtaining it.”

Opportunities for change and a shared, brighter future

While Asian-Americans with ADHD face significant challenges, it's crucial to acknowledge the opportunities for change and empowerment within our communities. By raising awareness and taking action, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for individuals with ADHD. Here are some avenues for progress:

  • Education & awareness: Increasing awareness of ADHD and the unique experiences of Asian ADHD is a critical step in destigmatizing the condition. There are already incredible content creators and change-makers paving the path both online and offline to support Asian-Americans with ADHD.
  • Culturally responsive support: Culturally responsive and affirming support is essential. Personalized, tailored interventions can make a significant difference in effectively managing ADHD symptoms. At Shimmer ADHD Coaching, we understand that no two paths are the same, and you can count on our support being personalized and culturally affirming.
  • Celebrating diverse paths to success: Let's challenge the traditionally narrow definitions of success and embrace the unique paths that individuals with ADHD can take. Creativity, innovation, and empathy are just a few of the many ADHD superpowers that, when embraced, can move mountains.
  • Amplifying real, lived experience: Stories like the ones highlighted above show us that Asians can have ADHD too. Highlighting these stories empowers others to become aware and join the movement.
  • Awareness & community building: By advocating for policy changes and improved resources, we can address the systemic barriers that hinder access to support. Let's join forces across sectors and communities to amplify our collective voice. One of our core values at Shimmer is "stronger together." We are fortunate to work with amazing organizations like the Asian Mental Health Project to raise awareness and provide solutions to the AAPI x ADHD community (if you’re part of the AAPI community & have ADHD, check out our latest scholarship for ADHD coaching here—apply by May 31, 2023).

Together, we can foster an environment where not only Asian-Americans but all individuals with ADHD can thrive and become the best versions of themselves. Let's create a future where every individual is empowered to reach their full potential, regardless of their neurodivergence. The journey towards understanding, acceptance, and support starts with each and every one of us.

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