When it comes to diversity, the tech industry often discusses race and gender. However, they seldom talk about neurodiversity, a concept that embraces the variety in different kinds of minds, especially those with neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD. Although companies ask applicants to disclose their disability status and promise to provide equal opportunities for those with disabilities, it leaves me wondering how they treat neurodivergent people in the workforce.
As an autistic woman with ADHD, I am affected by these problems.
When I reveal to people that I’m autistic, they usually say that I do not look autistic and immediately compare me to someone else’s autistic relative or friend, which is inappropriate and degrading to both parties. They also usually say that I am high-functioning, which is a backhanded compliment. Though I want to be polite, I think that I should have confronted them on how autism affects each individual differently as well as how autism can affect how a person socializes, navigates the world, and affects a person’s sensory processing.
To me, autism is best described as a nonlinear spectrum with different categories of symptoms, such as executive function, emotional regulation, social interaction, speech, and motor skills. There are nonverbal autistic people, and they should not be pressured to verbally speak with their mouth. Also, labels like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” in addition to levels like “mild autism,” “moderate autism” and “severe autism”, do not accurately describe the impact of autism on a person and invalidate the autistic person’s needs, whether they need minimal or substantial support.
While I make my best effort to appear neurotypical in public, it is exhausting to act “normal” every day and not be my authentic self. I feel like I must mask my symptoms of ADHD and autism to be accepted, leaving me emotionally and mentally tired. For the past year and a half, I have learned to accept my stimming, which is short for self-stimulatory behavior. With an autistic person, stimming generally refers to specific behaviors, such as hand-flapping, spinning, rocking, or pacing. Personally, I stim because pacing back and forth comforts me whether I am bored, stressed, or happy. For instance, I stim by walking back and forth for at least 20 minutes wherever I am at while listening to instrumental music soundtracks from YouTube on repeat or discussing amongst myself about my summer research. It feels as if I am being driven by a motor and constantly must move around my surroundings, making sitting still an impossible task. Although I can sit still for longer periods of time, my ADHD makes me hyperactive.
When I worked with my CS partner for an assignment in a loud setting, I revealed to him that I tend to get distracted by loud noises and informed him that I have ADHD. While I initially thought that he would let us move to a quieter study space to work on our assignment, he instead told me to just concentrate harder. As much as I wanted to shout at him that I was trying my hardest to focus on the task at hand, I instead got distracted and concentrated on the fact that I was overstimulated by my external environment along with my thoughts. From that point on, I tried to act like I did not disclose one of my disabilities to him and instead attempted to finish the CS assignment. From this encounter, I learned that it would be best not to disclose my disabilities to other people, especially those who I do not know well, in fear of being treated differently than before.
Maintaining friendships is arduous for me as well. Socially interacting with my peers do not come easily since I do not easily pick up subtle and nonverbal social cues from conversations. For example, maintaining eye contact in a conversation is a constant struggle. I often feel terrified of staring into another person’s eyes and become self-conscious by constantly reminding myself to look at them. I also get lost in social situations; when I am talking with a group of people, I do not know when to contribute to the group and when to let others speak. To me, talking in a group feels like competition of who speaks up more and I must win it. However, I learned from therapy sessions that it is not always necessary to contribute to a group conversation if I am not interested in the content.
Though I try my best to manage my ADHD with medications, therapy, and finding people like me through Facebook groups like Ladies Storm Hackathons and Rewriting the Code who also have women with disabilities similar to mine, it feels lonely not having someone in person who relates to my problems.
Still, I have been working to improve my social life by actively meeting new people through my clubs, Cornell Minds Matter (CMM) and Women in Computing at Cornell (WICC), which is an organization striving to make computing inclusive for all by fostering a supportive community of women and allies. People in both clubs have accepted me for who I am and do not undermine my struggle with me being neurodivergent; in fact, they embraced it. Not only am I feeling more mentally stable by following my treatment plan, I am living life through my ups and downs as well as connecting with friends, both old and new.
Down below are helpful articles to learn more neurodiversity, how it benefits companies overall, and another autistic person’s account of how Silicon Valley and the tech industry can improve the workplace for other neurodivergent people.
- Hana Gabrielle Rubio Bidon, RTC Fellow, Cornell University Rising Junior