According to the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada, 1.1 million Canadians have ADHD. However, after seeing that men with ADHD often get more support, Calgarian Claudia Barcelo created a support group for women with ADHD in Calgary.

Barcelo was diagnosed with ADHD when she was 17 and is one of the 60 per cent of adolescents who has carried the symptoms over into their adult lives, according to the centre.

At the time of her diagnosis, she was living in India with her family, where she said there weren’t many options for support.

“I think in their minds they thought maybe by just not making a big deal about it I would kind of cope and not see it as a hindrance or feel like I was defective in some kind of way,” said Barcelo.

Nor did it help when her mom cried after finding out she had been diagnosed with ADHD.

“It was really eye opening for me. I didn’t think it would have the impact that it did. You know, we all left there just feeling our hearts full, that we were not alone.

— Claudia Barcelo

“So I kind of struggled on my own and failed a lot,” said Barcelo, who felt both pride and shame when she thought of her situation. It wasn’t until university that Barcelo realized she needed help with that struggle. She went to see a counselor who said she should be prescribed medication, though she did not want to take it.

“I ended up flunking out of school, traveling the world, doing my thing. And then it wasn’t until my 30s that I actually started to realize a lot of the things I was struggling with in life were starting to actually have serious ramifications,”she said.

As a result, Barcelo said she “started seeing a psychologist and I got on medication and it’s kind of been life changing from there.”

She began doing some research into ADHD and the ways it affects women. She said she noticed there was far more extensive research when it came to men with ADHD versus women and that ADHD manifests differently in men than women.

According to Stats Canada, boys are three times more likely to develop ADHD than girls. However, a study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information on sex differences in ADHD explains that bias can affect those numbers. According to the study, the “association between the condition and conduct disorder/disruptive behaviour in males” lead to greater likelihood of parents or teachers referring boys to clinical services.

As a result, Calgary psychologist Marinda Venter, who specializes in ADHD, said there is more research on boys/men with the disorder than girls/women. Venter said that boys with ADHD are also more likely to fit the stereotypes of being disruptive, loud and chaotic in a classroom, because of the difference in sex chromosomes between males and females.

According to a different study by the NCBI, men have a Y chromosome whose main functions are “testis development and conferred male-typical physiological and behavioural traits,” making ADHD associated traits more obvious in that gender.

Barcelo gave the class clown as an example. By comparison, girls tend to be quieter and more pulled back. Barcelo described herself as “a space cadet, a bit of a loner, head’s always in the clouds.”

Barcelo said teachers often described her in similar ways: “She’s extremely bright, but she’s just lazy or she’s not applying herself.” Venter said these descriptions are heard quite commonly in women with ADHD.

That means, according to Venter, “the little boy that’s climbing a bookshelf in the classroom, they get more attention,” resulting in women with ADHD usually being diagnosed a lot later in life.

As a result, by the time that diagnosis had been given, Barcelo said, “A lot of that damage has been done.”

And that damage is compounded by the fact that “there’s mostly support groups for people who have an ADHD child or partner, you know? So it’s kind of like, a lot of the support groups out there are based around a normal-brained person, how to deal with me, people like us.”

That resulted in her beginning a “journey” to find out more about how her brain worked, as a woman with ADHD. She said it was a challenge finding information that was positive. It was then Barcelo began playing around with the idea of bringing women with ADHD together to “share ideas and explore creativity.”

She ran the idea by one of her friends who was a personal chef and also has ADHD. Together they hosted an event for women with ADHD. Both girls posted about their event on their Facebook pages and got immediate responses.

That first gathering, which happened in Vancouver where Barcelo lived at the time, was a cooking class. Those who showed up were taught to make a tagine – a Moroccan dish. Together they discussed the importance of diet and health.

She explained it’s especially hard for people with ADHD to sit and consume information so adding an activity made the event more interactive, catering to their need for engagement.

“It was really eye opening for me. I didn’t think it would have the impact that it did. You know, we all left there just feeling our hearts full, that we were not alone.” Barcello had one more gathering before moving back to Calgary, this time incorporating music and getting the attendees to write songs about their lives.

Barcelo stands next to the bus she pplans on renovating, and turning into a space to host some of her workshops. Photo courtesy of Neville Chamberlain

Barcelo wants to continue her gatherings for ADHD women, but this time with some restructuring.

In November 2019, she attended a workshop on how to build workshops hosted by her step-father Neville Chamberlain, the CEO of Britewrx, a boutique consulting company specialized in building high-performance businesses.

He had asked her to sit in and take photos of the event. But, on the day of the workshop, she was told she might as well come with an idea and mission statement to get some feedback from the other attendees.

She said she immediately began feeling anxious and inadequate, one of the many side effects of ADHD.

“I had come up with like, ‘a modern day approach for the bold and messy ADHD woman.’ It was like a structured-ish workshop with the catchphrase being ‘embracing our flaws and oddities to find purpose and place in a structured world.’”

Barcelo said as soon as she pitched the idea everyone said, “That’s amazing!” Then Chamberlain asked, “Who suffers from ADD or ADHD?” to which four people raised their hands. That surprised him, even though he knew people with ADHD don’t look any different than anybody else.

Barcelo is currently refining her approach and restructuring it with the help of her step-father, to come up with what she hopes will be a monthly workshop. She would like each workshop to be focused on a different activity, stressing its emotional importance and impact. She has also recently purchased an old school bus which she is converting.

She said that she “started pulling everything out of the bus” without “really knowing what I was doing or what the purpose was.” But then she realized she could turn it into “a moveable adult classroom slash workshop.”

When she isn’t working on her bus, Barcelo can be reached by email at claudia@modernandmessy.com, for anyone who is interested in attending or assisting with her workshop.