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Brandon Weaver
Brandon Weaver

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Tales of the Autistic Developer – Order and Chaos

For those who don't know me, I'm autistic. I've been a developer for the better part of a decade.

I didn't find out I was ASD until 19, and didn't reconcile with that until years later. These posts will be a combination of advice I've given to those who are like me, as well as a letter of sorts to my past self who could have used a lot of it.

I write these posts in the hopes that someone like me will find value in knowing a very simple and very important truth about ASD:

You are not alone, and you are loved.

Order and Chaos

While I am most certainly autistic, I'm also ADHD, making for a very interesting mix of traits. My mind, quite simply, operates in a mode of constant chaos.

It bounces from idea to idea as fast as something catches its fancy, and trying to tame it into some semblance of productivity has been my life's work.

The irony then is that my entire existence is implementing systems of order by which to counteract that natural state of chaos, but the deeper irony? Both have become indispensable to my work, and how I think.

A State of Chaos

In my decade or more of experience in the industry I've come to a very simple truth:

The hardest problems in technology are organizational, rather than technological.

While solutions may certainly exist, discovering them, building consensus, and orchestrating the release ends up being an exercise in chaos more often than not. There are entire categories of problems that are well beyond the scope of a single engineer, and quite frankly should be despite the best efforts of some to do otherwise.

The larger the problem the larger the surrounding context it involves, and by extension the more people will need to be involved to solve it properly. Bypassing this means bypassing critical context and insight, and potentially making very grave mistakes in the solutions you create.

Simply put that's the critical gap between a Senior and a Staff engineer, but that's a story for another day.

The point of this is that without a plan and systems of communication, organization, networking, and other methods of managing all that context you end up with chaos. A ship without a rudder sailing aimlessly into the distance.

That might work well for the short term, but direction becomes critical if you want to do anything beyond floating in a loosely forward direction.

Now this all brings up a very interesting question: how does someone with Autism / ADHD, both conditions known for not being great at all of the above, manage to survive past those levels?

A Contradictory Existence

As someone with Autism I like things to make sense, to have a natural order, and to fall into the right place. My life is dominated in many ways by a desire for order and rigor. Take me to any restaurant and I guarantee I'll order the same thing every time, and most of the owners will know me by name if I've lived somewhere for any decent amount of time. Consistency brings me peace of mind, and helps me to focus.

You can imagine that 2020 and 2021 were not kind on that note, but again, a story for another day.

Contradictorily and very ironically being ADHD means that my mind works in a state of disorder. I bounce between 10 ideas at any given time, find new hobbies everywhere, and can't focus to save my life.

These two traits are at constant odds with each other in my head. In many cases it feels like I humor myself between the two of them depending on which trait dominates on a given day. Do I need to snap out of an obsession from my Autistic nature, or do I need to drill down and focus on one task and quit being capricious from my ADHD nature?

Systems of Order

The answer is that I use them both against each other, where one is weak I supplement the other's strength. I create systems of order in which I can succeed with ADHD, via calendars, notes, reminders, and anything else I can get a hold of to keep myself accountable.

I have collections of notes spanning many years capturing insights, networks, communications, and more to make sure I can find the right people when I need to to get critical context. I create systems by which to capture and distill that information into useful documents, and further methods to distill that information into actionable content and executive summaries to inform those above me on a path forward.

The simple truth is I do not trust myself to be responsible, so any system of order I make is explicitly to keep myself accountable to a task. Being autistic I find great comfort in order and certainty, in rote and repetition of tasks, which means I'm very good at creating order of chaos.

What's interesting about that statement is the reverse: To get good at creating order of chaos, one has to be able to live in chaos and thrive in it first. ADHD's lack of a clear focal point and its tendency for capriciousness benefits me in that I'm far more comfortable with disorder and chaos than many without it. After all, my head works like that, even if I do like order more.

The critical point is that I can recognize chaos for what it is, and in doing so start to implement systems of order on top of it to facilitate progress. The larger the chaos the more this ability shines, but there are certainly dangers in forms of chaos that I cannot comprehend nor manage, so knowing my limit is critical in stepping back and consulting others first.

What's more interesting is that these systems of order allow something else entirely.

The Cost of Freedom

Through systems of order balancing chaos, I'm allowed a certain freedom of execution. I've created a solid foundation in which I can experiment, do as I will, and explore beyond scopes I may have been able to more early in my career.

When I was much younger I did not have such systems of order, yet I yearned for freedom. Freedom to play, to explore, to do what I wanted to do. Many times, when given such freedom, it would be my undoing. If anything seeking freedom was what about got me fired in a few roles in the past, as I did not have nearly the support structure I needed to execute upon it.

By creating systems of order that can sustain me, and networks by which I can execute through, I'm able to create greater freedoms by which myself and others can pursue tasks as we wish.

The irony, and the cost of that freedom, are systems of organization to prevent chaos beyond our ability to manage from eroding our foundation and putting us in positions where tasks are quite literally impossible to achieve.

I know, I've put myself in that position several times before, and it's not fun.

That said, it was probably those very experiences that gave me the critical insight that there's a high cost to freedom, and the higher one goes and the wider scope that one executes at that cost grows with it.

Consider a manager who creates systems of organization through Jira or Agile methodologies (it could be anything though, those are just examples). Through that newer engineers can execute tasks to move the team forward, but inside that framework they have the freedom to add tasks and propose new solutions, all because the team is still moving forward due to the manager's planning.

That manager shields the team from chaos beyond their scope of view, and in doing so gives them the freedom to execute in their own scope. Of course as team members level up they'll become privy to far more of the chaos the team is wrapped up in, but preferably only when they're ready to face it.

Extrapolate this to directors, department heads, GMs, VPs, C-levels, and more and you can see that the costs of organizing at each progressive level grow exponentially, but the freedom and clarity they provide by doing so to those under them grows with it.

That's a pretty amazing power, and one I hope to have one day, but one I have a lot of work to do to get to.

Superpower or Curse?

I exist in a world somewhere between chaos and order, creating order of chaos, and living a life that allows me to survive chaos perhaps beyond what would otherwise be normal. While this may sound like some form of superpower, it's far more a precarious balancing act, and if I happen to slip and let one side dominate it does not end well for me.

Should I let my Autistic nature dominate, I'll begin to lock down and go back to the familiar. Anything outside of that box won't happen, and I'll likely be like that for a week or two while I regain my composure. I start to jettison anything and everything not necessary to finish existing commitments, and will very much be in a state of Autistic burnout. Recovery from that is painful, and frequently I try and take a vacation when I find myself flirting too much with that line.

Should I let my ADHD nature dominate I'll get nothing done. I'll be on an endorphin hunt looking for anything and everything that can give me just a bit of a rush. Whether that be shopping, smells, foods, experiences, new comics, books, games, or any of the above I want something to make me feel whole and "happy" again, despite that being impossible. ADHD burnout means that I'll be on a perpetual hunt for a new high, until I detox my mind and get back to a normal state.

If you know me personally you'll notice that I have routines, whether that be coffee or food, that I tend to adhere to to satisfy my Autistic nature. You'll also notice the tendency of me pursuing new and novel hobbies on occasion, but in very limited quantities, to satisfy my ADHD nature.

I can't ignore them, but neither can I let them win and dominate my life, which brings up the question if this is a superpower or a curse.

Really though? It depends on the day.

Closing Thoughts

As I grow in my career my permanent fear is that I encounter chaos beyond my capacity requiring order that tips me beyond my limits. Thankfully I've had the support of many wise friends, mentors, elders, and family to guide me through those times. People who have been there, and seen the tops of the mountains I'm climbing, and that's made all the difference in the world. To even know it's possible, and that my ideals aren't wrong, is more valuable than gold to me.

If there's one final lesson I could impart from this article it's that you're not in this alone, not now and not ever. There will be things beyond us, but there will also be people there with an outstretched hand if you look for them.

We are not alone, not in the greatest chaos, nor in the most thorough systems of order we could imagine. Alone we will fail, but together we can achieve so much more, and that's a lesson I wish I had learned much earlier in my life.

Discussion (3)

jaustinuf profile image

Kudos for the hard work you’ve done, sticking to it to persevere: “Righteous perseverance brings just rewards.” (One translation of a Christian Bible passage.)

I was struck by your comment “my permanent fear is that I encounter chaos beyond my capacity requiring order that tips me beyond my limits.” From my experience:

  • there’s plenty (an infinite amount?) of chaos ‘out there’ that’s beyond anyone’s capacity!
  • neither you, I or anyone ever encounters anything ‘beyond our limits.’
  • that said, each of us can and will ‘encounter chaos’ that can stretch us to our limit.
  • there is always help available in such encounters (all the time, actually) … the work is to be open to it. Obviously I completely agree with your final two paragraphs! Jim
andreibexa profile image

I love the way you manage and accept the chaos around you.

kspurgin profile image
Kristina Spurgin

Just going to say this series really helps explain why your style of explaining clicks well with my brain. Thanks for the effort/time you spend on writing and communicating