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