Waterloo Road returned to the BBC at the beginning of January after an eight-year hiatus, serving up a sizeable dollop of nostalgia for its long-time fans.

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The revival, which follows the comings and goings at the titular school, is a contemporary take on the original, depicting everything from an all-out school rebellion to teen homelessness, with old favourites such as Donte Charles (Adam Thomas) and Kim Campbell (Angela Griffin) appearing alongside a host of new characters.

School is officially in session and it's so good to be back.

The drama has always shown a willingness to tackle challenging social issues, from teen pregnancy to mental health, and the new season is no different, with Kelly Jo Rafferty's storyline a particular standout.

When we first meet the Year 11 student (played by Alicia Forde) she's outwardly disruptive, with her emotional outbursts often landing her in hot water. But in time, her teachers suspect that she might have ADHD (Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and refer her for an assessment that not only helps Kelly Jo to understand her behaviour, but also to accept herself.

ADHD, which affects an estimated five per cent of children and three to four per cent of adults, is a neurological disorder that impairs the brain's executive functions. It's not a behavioural disorder or mental illness as it is sometimes categorised. As a form of neurodiversity, the way in which an ADHD brain processes and learns patterns differs from what is considered "neurotypical". Due to that, people with ADHD may struggle with impulse control, focus, organisation, exaggerated emotions and executive dysfunction.

ADHD can also present differently depending on your sex. While men and boys typically present as externally hyperactive, women and girls are more likely to be inattentive, commonly struggling with mental hyperactivity and anxiety. That can lead to women and girls being more likely to be overlooked or even misdiagnosed – men are almost three times more likely than women to receive an ADHD diagnosis.

But this is where Waterloo Road breaks the mould.

Close up of Kelly-Jo at school in her uniform
Alicia Forde as Kelly Jo Rafferty in Waterloo Road.

Rather than choosing a male student with 'anger issues', the stereotype most commonly associated with ADHD, the series's writers created Kelly Jo. Instead of presenting typically female ADHD traits, she's outwardly angry and has a short-fuse, which is more commonly associated with men and boys, but not unheard of in females.

Waterloo Road is also a lesson for educators. 39 per cent of children with ADHD have experienced fixed-term exclusions from school, and 11 per cent have been excluded permanently. But with the correct support, many of those outcomes could potentially have been avoided, instead playing out as Kelly Jo's story does.

The pupil's teachers help her seek out medical support and it quickly becomes apparent that a little understanding goes a long way.

"ADHD is often seen as something that only naughty boys at primary school have, so it's great that this storyline is being featured on prime-time television," said Hester Grainger, an ADHD mentor and co-founder of Perfectly Autistic, a neurodiversity consultancy. "A lot of viewers may recognise some of the traits in themselves or their children."

She went on to discuss the difficulty she faced in receiving her own diagnosis: "I was only diagnosed at 43 despite being impulsive and failing my maths GCSE three times."

Waterloo Road cast
The cast of the Waterloo Road revival. BBC

Kelly Jo's story isn't just about dismantling stereotypes in the hope that people will receive the support they need, but also helping those who have the condition to feel empowered and seen.

Lucy, who is now 22, was diagnosed at 19. She had always suspected she had ADHD but her school didn't take action to help her. Eventually, she contacted the GP herself.

"I was told I was naughty and annoying my whole life," she said. "ADHD is seen as 'loud and hyper', which is what she [Kelly Jo] is continually scolded for. But children don't have the vocabulary to express themselves with words and it can manifest as an outburst. It's so important that this is highlighted so that this behaviour can be flagged and listened to, not punished."

Grainger also emphasised the importance of "good representation", adding: "A lot of TV characters with ADHD can be seen as brash and loud. Often, ADHD can be more subtle, which is difficult to portray."

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Alicia Forde as Kelly Jo Rafferty and Priyasasha Kumari as Samina Choudry in Waterloo Road.

Lewis (26) was diagnosed with ADHD in 2020 while studying on an Erasmus programme in Denmark and didn't know much about it beyond the stereotypes. He said: "ADHD tends to be portrayed almost as a parody of what it is; the overly hyper, chaotic and naughty school kid or someone who's a bit distant or a daydreamer. Those traits don't resonate with me."

Like Lucy, he believes positive media representation wields the potential to change lives, and feels his initial understanding of his diagnosis would undoubtedly have been more robust if that positive representation was more widespread.

Kelly Jo's journey isn't just a story, but a reality for many. Women can have ADHD, too, and it doesn't present in one way across the board.

By choosing to explore the subject in a sensitive, informed way, Waterloo Road is banging the drum for ADHD diversity representation on screen, demanding better from those who continue to peddle damaging myths, and calling on teachers and authority figures to educate themselves and offer a vital helping hand to those who need one.

"There's nothing more challenging than living in a world where no one can understand you," said Lucy. "Representation matters."

Waterloo Road is airing weekly on BBC One, with the entire series available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.

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