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Tory Whanau reveals ADHD diagnosis with 'significant traits of autism'

Author
Ethan Manera,
Publish Date
Fri, 7 Jun 2024, 7:20am

Tory Whanau reveals ADHD diagnosis with 'significant traits of autism'

Author
Ethan Manera,
Publish Date
Fri, 7 Jun 2024, 7:20am

- Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau has been diagnosed with ADHD and “significant traits of autism”. 
- Whanau has adjusted her work arrangements to manage her symptoms, including shorter meetings and more rest. 
- She is aiming to use her diagnosis positively, enhancing her mayoral duties and reducing the stigma around ADHD. 

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau has revealed she’s been diagnosed with ADHD and “significant traits of autism”.  

In a sit-down interview with the Herald, Whanau said the diagnosis came as a shock while she was receiving professional mental health support after publicly admitting to a drinking problem late last year. 

Whanau said she was diagnosed in April after working with a therapist and it has impacted her job “in a positive sense”. 

After going sober, Whanau said “traits of autism started appearing a lot more” and ADHD symptoms like hyperfocus were more prevalent in her work. 

“For many people who have ADHD, alcohol use disorder is also part of that,” she said. 

Since receiving the diagnosis, Whanau has worked with her office to make changes to her work arrangements, including “front-loading” her day so as to put more challenging tasks at the beginning of the day when her energy is at its greatest, and incorporating more time for rest. 

“Meetings are kept to 30 minutes and people need to get to the point right away, and we ensure that I get lots of rest - exhaustion is a very common symptom of ADHD. 

“I’ve made officers and [some] councillors aware of this so that we can ensure that time is well-utilised. We now know that what [previously could] be achieved in an hour can actually be achieved in 15 minutes.” 

Whanau said learning she has ADHD has had a "positive" impact on her work. Photo / Mark Mitchell  Whanau said learning she has ADHD has had a "positive" impact on her work. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

Whanau said attending events in a mayoral capacity has also been a challenge “with the autism side of things”. 

“Being in a very social environment is ultra-exhausting. It just means that we need to work around that and ensure that at least once a week, I’ve got some time to recharge.” 

She said having traits of autism also “played quite a big part in making last year challenging”, adding many neurodivergent people also struggle with alcohol use problems. 

“It’s still something I’m learning about myself. I’ve basically gone 40 years without this diagnosis, and when I look back and think about the assessment, things are fitting into place.” 

The Herald first learned of Whanau’s diagnosis after she updated her biography on social media platform TikTok last month to describe herself as the “Neuro-spicy Mayor of Wellington City”, a term popularised by Generation Z internet users which refers to neurodiversity. 

When questions about the use of this term were sent to the mayor’s office, it was removed from her profile. 

Whanau said she didn’t expect anyone to see it: “I forget I’m a public figure sometimes.” 

“When I was diagnosed, I wanted to watch more content about it, connect with more people ... there are a lot of ADHD people on TikTok - in fact, they’re all on there, and we’ve all kind of got ‘neuro-spicy’ in our profile, mainly just to connect with each other more,” she said. 

Whanau said the diagnosis has allowed her to learn more about herself. 

“It’s quite an interesting experience and one that I’m learning about every day,” she said. 

Whanau said she sees it as a positive thing which has meant she’s been able to take the perceived challenges of ADHD and autism and use them to her advantage. 

“If I could get to becoming mayor with those challenges and now I’m treating those and embracing those, I can only see the rest of this term - and next term, and the following term – being really wonderful. Like a supercharged mayor”. 

“It’s certainly not a negative ... all it is is that my brain works a little bit differently and I have my attention on many things, and sometimes hyperfocus on a singular thing.” 

Whanau has changed the way she works after being diagnosed, keeping meetings to 30 minutes and taking more time to rest. Photo / Mark Mitchell  Whanau has changed the way she works after being diagnosed, keeping meetings to 30 minutes and taking more time to rest. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

Whanau’s relationships with councillors from across the political spectrum have at times been difficult, but she said since receiving her diagnosis, their interactions have improved. 

“I think I have, at the moment, a very good relationship with the councillors that I didn’t have a few months ago, and I think some of that is to do with the diagnosis. 

“I’m naturally quite introverted ... when people first meet me, I think that because I’m still trying to figure them out, I might come across a little bit cold sometimes. 

“I react emotionally to certain behaviours, and once I realised that that might be an autistic trait or ADHD trait, I thought, ‘Okay, take a step back’. I don’t need to be so upset or so offended once I’ve removed that emotional barrier.” 

Whanau said while she originally did not intend to speak about her diagnosis for a while, she was “certainly not going to say no” to discussing it when asked. 

“I think it’s important to share. Not because of me, I don’t want to make this about myself necessarily, it’s just a very real disorder and issue in the community. 

“If it can help others feel okay - that they have it and connect with me more as their mayor - then all the better.” 

ADHD New Zealand chairman Darrin Bull said it’s common for people with ADHD to be diagnosed after a “crisis” or difficult period in their life. 

Bull said research also shows strong links between ADHD and problematic alcohol and drug use. 

“People with ADHD are predisposed to addiction ... It’s very, very common.” 

“In particular, women with ADHD are underrepresented. 

“Just a few years ago, often women were not viewed as being able to have ADHD.” 

Bull describes people with ADHD as “just someone who thinks differently” and is praising Whanau for speaking out. 

“There’s significant stigma around ADHD, and as high-profile people start to talk about it and their experiences, it starts to normalise the conversation.” 

Ethan Manera is a multimedia journalist based in Wellington. He joined NZME in 2023 and is interested in politics, local issues and the public service. Ethan is always on the lookout for a story and can be emailed at [email protected] or messaged on X (formerly Twitter) @ethanjmanera 

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