By now, most of us have heard of the case of Grace (only known by her middle name). Grace is a 15-year-old Black girl with ADHD who was sent to juvenile detention in Michigan, by a Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, for not completing her homework during a national pandemic. Grace was on probation for two minor infractions (stealing a cell phone and an altercation with her mom). She is diagnosed with ADHD and on an IEP in school. An IEP is an individualized education plan whose intention is to provide support and services in the school. It also should provide protections when school struggles are related to the IEP diagnosis.
I want to talk about the intersectionality of ADHD, being black and female.
ADHD explained to my patients. ADHD is called an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but it is not really about the inability to pay attention. It is difficulty focusing attention. Difficulty focusing can be a deficit at times, and it can be an asset at times. Think back to “caveman” times. It was a benefit to be able to hunt, while paying attention to the kids, looking for enemy tribes, etc. This ability to divide focus was beneficial and thus passed down to generation to generation. It is very recent in human history, where we were stationary and indoors for eight or more hours a day (work and school). In that kind of environment, divided attention can be intricate. If you are sitting in class and every noise or thought distracts you, that can become an issue. ADHD can still be a benefit in some areas. Most people with ADHD are creative, inventive, energetic, can hyperfocus, spontaneous, empathetic, humorous, and outside the box thinkers.
However, the DSM criteria only list our difficulties. How do these things look in real life? While ADHD can afford us ADHDers benefits, we usually get in trouble for the things that cause us difficulties—being quick-tempered, forgetful, disorganized, “too talkative,” careless, inconsistent, etc.
So back to Grace. Here we have a 15-year-old child diagnosed with ADHD. She has done some impulsive things (steal a phone, had an altercation with her mother). She is put on probation for this and is now a part of the school to prison pipeline. Then COVID-19 hits, kids are suddenly expected to do distance learning. She falls asleep instead of completing work and is sent to juvenile detention.
How did this happen?
How does a kid with diagnosed ADHD on an IEP get placed in jail for not completing schoolwork?
What happened to Grace happens to Black girls every single day, with or without a pandemic, with or without a diagnosis, with or without an IEP. It is not uncommon or unique, and that is what makes it even worse.
Impulsivity in a black girl is not seen as an issue stemming from meds, skills training, therapy, and mentorship, all of which can help. It is seen as defiance, coming from a wrong home environment, or criminality.
Disorganization is seen as laziness or a personality flaw.
Being energetic is seen as being the “jovial black person” and should be our baseline. Any normal expression of other emotions is seen as being unapproachable, being intimidating, and/ or having the “angry black woman” syndrome.
One common feature of ADHD is when we get excited or stressed; we have a hard time modulating our voices; this is seen as having an attitude versus excitement.
Forgetfulness is seen as purposeful avoidance or defiance.
We are giving punishments instead of accommodations, sternness instead of encouraging words, assumptions/projections instead of understanding.
When will this end?
When will our kids be able to go to school and get the education, care, and support they deserve?
When will the system cease to be used as a weapon against our blackness, which is compounded when you are a part of any other marginalized community (disability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender, religion, culture, etc.)?
We are angry, tired, and overwhelmed.
There is a lot of work to do to end systemic equality.
Join your PTAs and push systemic change. Attend school board meetings. Vote.
UPDATE: Grace has finally been released!! This is what happens when we work together and demand change. Let’s continue to demand change for all of the other black neurodiverse young ladies that are going through these challenges!!
When will the system cease to be used as a weapon against our blackness, which is compounded when you are a part of any other marginalized community (disability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender, religion, culture, etc.)