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Abbey Perini
Abbey Perini

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Coding and ADHD - ADHD Brains

To me, my Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and my ability to write code are irrevocably linked. I had suspected I had ADHD for years, but only went through the formal diagnosis process in September 2021. One of the primary reasons I went to get tested was when I was interested in a coding problem, I could lose 6+ hours, often missing meetings and meals.

I have ADHD combined type, which means I have hyperactive and impulsive symptoms as well as inattentive symptoms. Among other things, I struggle with:

  • fidgeting/restlessness
  • impatience/frustration
  • hyperfocus
  • rumination
  • time blindness
  • Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
  • sustaining attention
  • poor working memory
  • procrastination
  • lack of attention to detail

A comic by Dani Donovan Non-ADHD: a person walking their dogs in a nice row and whistling. The dogs are labelled responsibilities. ADHD: a person tangled in dog leashes, the dogs each up to their own antics

ADHD Brains

Many people have said it better, but I feel like I have too much attention. I would love to be able to pay attention to one thing. It would be great for my brain to focus on something just because I or other people think it should be important. In fact, it is physically painful for me to sit still with nothing interesting happening. Rather than "Attention-Deficit," it should be called something like "Attention-Regulation" or "Executive Function" / Hyperactivity Disorder.

Coding can give ADHD brains exactly the kind of stimulation they crave. Every brain has reward pathways to reinforce learning - if you hit a button and immediately get a thing you really like, your brain will want to hit the button again. If the payoff is random, like fixing a bug and trying a bunch of different things before you find the solution, then the reward seems even better to brains.

ADHD brains approach the buttons differently. They struggle with pressing the button if they don't know it'll give them a reward they really like. They have a hard time finding buttons with rewards good enough to make them want to press it again. Once they find a button they like, they often press it way too many times. The current theory is that our learning pathways use up dopamine faster and our brains don't convert glucose to dopamine and serotonin as well as other brains. In other words, we're constantly searching for things that will give us good enough rewards and bad at leaving those things alone once we find them.

Graveyard of Abandoned Hobbies by Dani Donovan showing a tombstone for each of 23 hobbies like calligraphy, D&D, guitar, gardening etc.

For us, part of the appeal of those rewards is novelty. People with ADHD don't stop to question it when they're interested in something. So they can often achieve great things without realizing they were supposed to be hard, but also usually have many hobbies and projects that were started and then abandoned.

Luckily for us, not only is coding a creative endeavor that involves constantly learning new things, but also once one problem is solved, there's always a brand new one to try.

Conclusion

Personally, I would never describe ADHD as a super power. Yes, it's why I could learn coding concepts I'm interested in seemingly overnight. People seem to admire the way my brain wants to be constantly picking up hobbies and diving straight into the deep end of projects. It's also why I cannot attempt an algorithm coding challenge without crying, often try to change too many things at once without testing, and have been typing this blog for 40 minutes instead of eating lunch.

To that point, the rest of this series will be about strategies for dealing with the four main challenges I experience while coding with ADHD:

Followed by how I feel my ADHD symptoms can be beneficial in a development role:

Discussion (24)

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whobeu profile image
Robert G. Schaffrath • Edited on

I was formally diagnosed way back in the early 1970's when I was a kid. Many of the issues listed here I have dealt with for decades though my memory is the opposite: I remember everything, sometimes down to the minutest detail which often annoyed friends when I could recall details of things they hoped were forgotten.

These days I have two cups of strong coffee to give me some focus time. When I am on a roll, I can crank out code by the page. But I do have issues with fidgeting/restlessness as well as impatience/frustration. I used to work for a Fortune 10 company and I disdained periodic department meetings with a passion. Drove me crazy listening to status reports being reported at a pace much slower than I could easily comprehend and then having to go back and pick up where I left off before the meeting. Thankfully, due to productivity issues and the ever increasing demand for more revenue, meetings became less frequent as they were viewed by upper management as a waste of "valuable" time.

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Abbey Perini Author

I feel that. Please don't ask how many times I fell asleep in meetings about sales numbers. ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

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dvddpl profile image
Davide de Paolis • Edited on

Nice serie.
May I ask how you got your formal diagnosis? Where did you get tested?

Actually I don't know if I want to know for sure but sometimes I wonder about my brain as well. I don't think I have deficit but definitely hyperactivity.. (and for sure I could keep reading or thinking about something for hours forgetting everything else, if the thing caught my attention, or I would struggle reading 2 lines if I just don't care..)
Also I am wondering how knowing that would be helpful. What did change in your perception of yourself and in how you behave after you got the diagnosis?

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abbeyperini profile image
Abbey Perini Author

Hey Davide,

For people in the U.S., I have a Twitter thread on finding a therapist. To get tested and prescribed medication, I went to a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD. I found the psychiatrist the same way I would find a therapist, and if you're already seeing a therapist, they can also help get you started with the diagnosis process.

The testing started with this questionnaire, then I talked to the psychiatrist, and then I took a test where I had to do a boring task for 20 minutes while being recorded. What still cracks me up is because I knew it was a test, I was trying really hard to sit still and thought I would get a score that wouldn't indicate I was hyperactive. I still scored in the 99th percentile for hyperactivity.

I agree "attention deficit" doesn't really fit, and experience the same thing - no trouble reading if I like the topic, and lots of trouble reading if I don't care. Ultimately, what empowered me to go through the diagnosis process was the ADHD memes and threads on Twitter. They gave me the language to use to describe the patterns of symptoms throughout my life, and when I laid it out like that, the psychiatrist said the 20 minute test was basically a formality. It wasn't just what I could focus on, it was also sensitivity to criticism and others' emotions, the inability to get myself up off the couch sometimes, that the adult tasks that required a little bit every day seemed impossible, and more.

A diagnosis changed a lot of things for me. I had been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I was really struggling with wedding planning (aka managing a lot of details, people, and events). When I started asking myself if I was anxious or if I needed to move around, most of my anxiety went away. The rest disappeared when I stopped expecting myself to be as productive as neurotypicals, gave myself the freedom to fidget, and started expecting myself to forget everything if I didn't write it down. The diagnosis also gave me tools - medication prescribed by the psychiatrist, resources I'll be listing in the rest of the series, and more. I've been able to unpack a lot of shame and focus on functioning rather than unrealistic expectations of myself.

It turns out many women are diagnosed late in life because the diagnostic criteria in the U.S. for ADHD describes what annoys teachers and parents about white boys with ADHD. Mental healthcare providers in the U.S. also get very little training on ADHD and there is a lack of research and still quite a bit of stigma. My mother in law was told many years ago by a specialist that my husband could not have ADHD because his teachers liked him (false). I still often get reactions like "but you did well in school!" even though many of my teachers would tell you I could have done better and they were letting me draw in class because it was the only way I could focus.

I hope this explanation helps!

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dvddpl profile image
Davide de Paolis

Thanks Abbey for your very detailed reply. I was very interested because I normally hear about kids being diagnosed while at school, or adults that were diagnosed when they were young and it seemed to me that, unless you are maybe already visiting a therapist, it's kinda hard to get diagnosed.
will try out the questionnaire.
looking forward to your next posts

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Sergey Antopolskiy

it's like I am reading about myself. eerie.

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Bashar Abdullah

I have been suspecting I have some form of ADHD for some years now. So many hobbies and wanna do projects, inability to focus on one thing, that a 1 hour video could take me 2.5 hours to finish because of distractions and lost focus.

This is great read, especially from another developer. Thanks

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Prateek Varma

Every time I read something about ADHD, I feel I have it. Still trying to figure it out if I do.

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Thibault Jan Beyer

WOW! This speaks right out of my heart. I've the exact same problems and wondering where to get tested and how to get help now. Looking forward to read the rest. At least I feel very relatable as of now

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Chris Mittell

I recently starting trying to find resources out there with ADHD and Software Development in mind. I found the start of this series the other week and told myself to wait and spend the time reading it all once it was done.

As both a developer and someone who was only recently diagnosed with ADHD, I've come to realise a lot about my behaviour and interpretation of things around me which have affected my ability to work productively and enjoy what I do.

I really agree with your button analogy, especially when it comes to the hesitation of what the result might be. I would add that once a button with the result we want (not necessarily need) is found, by over-pressing it we might find the result is no longer as impactful as it once was, and then have to find another button, leading to hesitation, then finding one that "works", over-pressing it again... etc.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series, and want to say thank you for writing about this. While I'm sure a lot of this can apply to other areas that aren't software development related, I feel it really matters to talk about these experiences, and share your version of them.

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Ayu Adiati

Thanks for writing and sharing this, Abbey! ๐Ÿ’™

Through info and stories from my friends with ADHD, I see similar symptoms in me. Especially now after reading this post.
I'm quite sure that I have ADHD, although I don't know how severe it is.

It's not easy to get tested here. We have to go to GP first before they decide if we should see psychologists. Most of the times, they won't send us there except if we also have regular physical complains.

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Abbey Perini Author

Oh Ayu, I'm so sorry to hear about the diagnosis process. You're not alone! You can always reach out to me, Bekah, Dan, and the rest of the VC neurodiverse crew ๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’™

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Denisa • Edited on

Hi! I really feel this post is a great find for me, thank you for your time and effort.
I have been struggling with my own discovery this past year. It was a revelation to recognize that these difficulties went beyond my "supposed incompetence" or my "lack of discipline", I look forward to the next posts โ™ฅ

Hola! realmente siento que este post es un gran hallazgo para mi, gracias por tu tiempo y esfuerzo.
He estado luchando con mi propio descubrimiento este รบltimo aรฑo. Fue una revelaciรณn reconocer que estas dificultades iban mรกs allรก de mi "supuesta incompetencia" o mi "falta de disciplina", espero los prรณximos post โ™ฅ

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Kasper Jacobsen

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 13 years old and was send to a boarding school "to learn how to function". Because I had no one I my life to help me understand my ADHD.

I am now 30 years old and ended op in programmering 5 years ago, and I finally feel that I have found something I could do for the rest of my life.

Yes, I can relate to many of the topics in this article and I kinda wish that I had this back when I was younger.

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Roger Mullins

Whoa. I thought I might be the only one or something... amazing series!

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Drazi Crendraven

Abbey, I don't think I can heart this enough times.

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Camille

I read part 2 first and them came to read part 1 because .... "get out of my head" was all I could say.

Thank you for this. I appreciate you.

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Anja

I really love that series. Thank you!

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Andrew Baisden

ADHD can be such a blocker when you want to get some work done.

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Jose Cueto

Thanks for sharing.

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QuimeraKoke

Wow, I feel like I could write the same describing my brain !!!

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Oyinlola Alasoluyi

This is superb, apt and so spot on, you rightly spilled it.
Thanks for being so vulnerable to share these lifelong lessons from this experience.

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Amirhossin-TP • Edited on

Greate.
i feel like i wrote this.
i almost cant focus to start coding or any other things,but in 0.01% of time when i finally focus on doing things,I will done that job in best way.

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Jose Cueto • Edited on

Hi,

Great series BTW. I wonder about your monitor set up. Do you use more than 1 monitors? Does more monitors make you more productive or less?