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Things Every Software Engineer Should Know About Neurodiversity

0. Key Terms

  • Neurodivergent - The term neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense.
  • Neurotypical - it referred to anyone who is not autistic
  • Neurotypes - A type of brain, in terms of how a person interprets and responds to social cues, etc.

1. About

  • Life-long weirdo who's finally figuring it out.
  • NOT a doctor or medical professional.

2. Neurodiversity

  • A subset of biodiversity.
  • The idea that different people can have different neurotypes.
  • Most people's cognition and sensory apparati work more or less the same as everyone else's - we call these people Neurotypical.
    • Other people experience various aspects of reality differently - we call these people Neurodivergent and doctors have names for various conditions.

3. Neurodivergent Syndromes and Diagnoses (a subset)

3.1 Autism

  • Autism is hard to define and seems to be the result of the intersections of several other conditions leading to behavioral and developmental differences.
    • Think of it as a range of possible configurations of the Human Operation System.
    • Hard to define, because no two autistic people share the same exact profile.
    • Note: Talk focuses on the traits rather than the diagnosis.

3.2 ADHD

  • "Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder" is a horrible name for a complex and nuanced condition.
    • ADHD brains process time and attention differently.
    • Brain's reward centers are stimulated by curiosity rather than goals.
    • Paying attention to things that aren't "interesting" takes sustained hard effort.
    • Often (but not always) includes difficulty regulating strong emotions.

3.3 Bipolar Disorder

  • Bipolar people can have widely fluctuating emotions that are difficult to regulate. There are various presentations and treatments.
    • Used to be called "Manic Depression"
    • Type 1: alternating Hypomania and Depression.
    • Type 2: alternating Hypermania and Depression.
    • Symptoms are triggered by drug use in some people.
    • Medication exists, but there are tradeoffs.

3.4 Dyslexia / Dyscalculia

  • If your brain processes visual data faster then your eyes can convey it, then things like reading and parsing visual details can be a challenge.
  • The brain can process different kinds of information differently.
  • These diagnoses don't exist without writing and math, which are technologies.
    • What's that say about disability?
  • Wide-ranging knock-on effects in life.

3.5 Sensory Processing Disorders

  • People with OCD are experiencing an epistemological crisis with alarming regularity. This is often a need to be absolutely certain of something.
  • Not everyone has the same relationship to the outer world.
  • Sensory processing is how we make sense of reality.
  • People with different sensory needs literally inhabit a different reality, and we have to respect that.

3.6 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

  • People with OCD are experiencing epistemological crisis with alarming regularity. This is often a need to be absolutely certain of something.
    • Not a joke - this can be all-consuming and leave little space for the rest of life.
    • Pure O variant where the behavioral component is cognitive. Hard to diagnose often fills sufferer with shame.
    • The key is to interrupt the brain's reward loop, but it's hard.

3.7 Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens when you've lived through something so emotionally painful that you haven't been able to process it.
    • Organize your whole life not to think about the trigger.
    • Now you're having "Flashback", reliving your worst experience.

3.8 Complex PTSD

  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is the result of living through a sustained traumatic period. It's a pervasive condition that impacts every part of life.
  • "Emotional Flashbacks" instead of specific flashbacks - you flashback to how you felt when you were living under trauma.
    • Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn responses emerge uncontrollably under threat.
    • Spent your life looking for threats, relating to others through a scared and angry fog.

4. Neurodivergent Traits (also a Subset)

4.1 Time Blindness

  • Common with certain types of ADHD as well as dyscalculia and autism.
  • The subjective experience of time passing does not map to the external passage of time.
    • "Whoops did I just spent 4 hours on that?"
    • Either early or late for everything.
  • NOT a character flaw- this is literally an inability to perceive time the way NT people do.

4.2 Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia)

  • Cognitive disorder of face perception in which the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one's own face (self-recognition)
    • Rely on hairstyle, voice, clothing, movement, etc.

4.3 Aphantasia

  • A condition where one does not possess a functioning mind's eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.
    • Some people are incredibly rich visual thinkers, are to scour memories for details.
    • Some people cannot visualize anything at all if they're not looking at it.
    • Most people seem are somewhere in between.

4.4 Sleep Problems

  • Common in Autism and in some ADHD, it can difficult to turn the brain off and go to sleep -- or to turn it back on and wake up.
    • Chronic insomnia
    • Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
    • Chronic Fatigue compounds existing challenges

4.5 Rejection Sensitivity

  • Common with ADHD and Autism, a lifetime of being corrected leads to a heightened awareness of disappointing people and horrific fear of being rejected.
    • Thinking that are no big deals for most people can ruin a day or a week for people with rejection sensitivity.
    • One's sense of self is situated in others, and so one requires validation and approval, or else one's self is "wrong".
    • This leads to unnecessary isolation and alienation.

4.6 Toxic Shame

  • Related to CPTSD and Rejection Sensitivity, some people feel shame way more strongly than they need to.
    • Shame is how other people teach you how they want you to act.
    • Some shame is appropriate
    • If you feel constant shame just for being yourself, that's something you learned and you can unlearn it.

4.7 Sensory Overload

  • People who are hypersensitive to various things can become overloaded, resulting in scary and dysregulating (impairment of a physiological regulatory mechanism) behavior.
    • Bright lights, loud sounds, specific textures, even strong emotions can be painful.
    • It can lead to meltdown or shutdown, which are not tantrums but rather the body trying to protect itself.
    • Excruciating and embarrassing to deal with.
    • Don't make fun of Bono's sunglasses.

4.8 Masking

  • The process where neurodivergent people do their best to as and "pass" as Neurotypical.
    • Everyone does a bit, it's how "fitting in" works.
    • For Neurotypical people is about avoiding social consequences.
    • Challenge scales with the degree of neurodivergence.
    • "Passing Privilege" Analogy
    • This can be soul-destroying, can confuse mask for self.

4.9 Autistic Communication

  • Many autistic people struggle with understanding, being understood, and finding acceptance.
    • Different things are obvious to an autistic mind than to an allistic mind.
    • Notice different details
    • As a result, we're not always talking about the same things with the same words.

4.10 Autism and Gender

  • Gender is a social construct, and many neurodivergent people (notably autistic) struggle to share social constructs with neurotypical people.
    • A ton of neurodivergent people are also genderqueer.
    • Delta between subjective experience and societal communications and expectations.
    • Concept of Autigender: the gender only autistic people experience

4.11 Autism At Work

  • Moving from a school environment to a professional environment is a culture shock that's poorly documented for autistic minds.
    • Lots to learn, lots of painful trial-and-error.
    • Prioritize feelings and reputations over correctness.
    • Doesn't understand the "Compliment sandwiches?"
    • Oh my god, why can't anyone understand what I'm trying to say it's so obvious.

5 Next Steps

5.1 Believe People

  • Starting with yourself.
    • Subjective experience is inaccessible to science and medicine.
    • Nobody can "prove" what they feel, so we have to listen and believe.
    • Kids especially - so much harm later in life happens when our childhood needs go unmet.
  • Believe your children when they tell you something hurts when they tell you they struggle with a texture when they can't make friends.
    • Early support is the difference between thriving and spending years or decades unlearning toxic coping skills.

5.2 Accept People

  • Also; starting with yourself.
    • Nobody can be other then they are - this doesn't mean that self-improvement doesn't exist, but it's important to understand what can be improved and what's an intrinsic part of someone.
  • Try to meet people where they are rather than expecting them to meet your where you are.
  • Understand that many disabilities are invisible, and you don't know what your colleagues are dealing with.

5.3 Make People Safe

  • Also; starting with yourself.
    • The polyvagal theory argues with some compelling evidence that we cannot be our full or best selves until and unless we feel safe.

6. Additional resources

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