Neurodiversity in IT: Anonymous Stories

The stories on this page were shared by colleagues working in IT at Stanford.

The stories were shared in October 2022 in connection with an event hosted by Neurodiversity in IT program, "ADHD: Understanding a Shared Experience."

October is ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) Awareness Month; the theme in 2022 was "Understanding a Shared Experience." 

As you read these stories, consider how they might help you become a better ally for your colleagues.

I'm autistic, but fairly high functioning. I know that some people don't like that term, but it's the easiest way to get across that it's not noticeable to acquaintances. I've "come out" to some coworkers, but it's case by case. I've told coworkers who I'm friendly with, and who seem to be somewhat aware of neurodiversity/autism.

I'm cautious about telling people who don't fit that criteria because I'm worried they'll ascribe negative traits that might not be true, or that are within normal behavior. For example, everyone sometimes misunderstands coworkers' requests/tasks, but I don't want that to become "She often misunderstands tasks because she's autistic" - I don't misunderstand people more than average, and I don't want the "autism" label to create issues. (Actually, probably even less than average, because one of the autistic traits I relate to is a focus on details.) It's something that doesn't really affect my work, in the sense that I don't need people to know about it in order to work well with them. But it's something that I'm private about because there's still a stigma.

I don't mind being autistic, and the people close to me know, but society at large isn't always good about it.

When I think about my professional journey through the lens of having ADHD, the first thing that comes to mind is wow, I could have used some guidance. I come from a time where yes you may have been diagnosed with ADHD, but there weren't a lot of resources on what that may look like in the real world. Yes, we all know you can have trouble focusing, but there are so many more facets that go along with these non-typical brain functions. Ways that I functioned for years had me believing that I had shortcomings or the inability to master certain things and that just wasn't one hundred percent true. There are reasons why I excel at things, and other things may be a little harder.  

So for me part of how my mind works is that I am always thinking, I am always analyzing the current situation and seven thousand past and future situations all at the same time. So what does this mean? When I am in a meeting or presenting and have to talk, I get super tongue tied. This is because at the same time I am trying to speak, my mind is usually in deep thought mode on a plethora of other things or I'm trying to problem solve while I'm talking. When I am presenting this causes me a huge amount of anxiety and it becomes a runaway train of sorts. I find myself not being in the moment and have almost an out of body experience, completely disconnected from what I am saying. On the flip side, when given a process to improve or an opportunity to answer with a tool or a solution, I excel. My super over-analytical brain allows me to look at the effort with a super-wide lens and provide vision on how to achieve our endgame, much of the time thinking completely outside the box.  These examples, as well as so many other attributes that make up my crazy complex self to an outsider may not be so clear to understand, or even understandable to myself totally still.

Now the question is, did I always understand this about myself? Did I understand that although I don’t excel at some basic skills like speaking, but excelled at others, and it wasn't necessarily bad? No, I didn't. It took me learning from others' journeys and huge amounts of self-exploration to really get to know myself, and let's not kid ourselves, there is much more exploration to go!  

So what is as important as knowing yourself and understanding where you could add the most value? Communication! What I have learned is knowing how you function without communicating what this means on how you perform in certain situations is a huge missed opportunity. An amazing step I have made, mostly brought on by attending other Stanford neurodiverse events, is sharing what makes me diverse. By explaining to my leadership how my make up may explain ways that I function that they may have not fully understood or in some cases others thought were shortcomings has been a game changer. It has allowed my leadership and colleagues to tap into areas I excel at while at the same time understanding when I don't function in a typical matter. This has been beneficial to not only my career but to the efforts and success of teams I have been a part of.

It is my hope that we as a society and us here at Stanford can guide others by telling our stories and sharing our resources to allow others to identify what makes them amazing, diverse human beings. Knowing that each of us can bring strengths and values to help us all excel at what we are trying to achieve.

As young as I could remember, my world was big. Very big. Full of curiosity and discovery. In love with moments you couldn’t capture in words and experiences too colorful to explain. My world was yet wonder filled. Dreaming in this beautiful, creative space, making up stories on how or why some-thing or some-one existed was my standard operating procedure. It was how I experienced the world, I wanted to see everything, unearth every new scent and listen to every penetrating moment. All of this brought such a positive emotional experience. Every new discovery was more emotionally rewarding than the last. I needed to record and relive these moments for others to share. Was everyone like me? I often found myself overwhelmed and unable to decide on what stimulating opportunity was more rewarding. I was amazed by the simple things. I knew this was going to be one of the fundamental principles on how I was going to operate in my life. But I didn’t have any knowledge or guidance of how to process it all.

Well, as you can imagine, with any five, six or seven year old, negative side effects would surely reveal themselves. I found myself unable to focus on a single task due to the stimulating nature of the “next moment”, surely, every moment. My internal emotional reward system needed increasingly more stimulus to stay on task. I deeply wanted to please my parents and teachers, but I wanted to amaze them. I hadn't experienced the satisfaction and joy of finishing a project and the pride that accompanies those opportunities. Living in the moment was more gratifying than shaping that moment. How does one finish what they started? This was misunderstood by school counselors as Dyslexia. When my family was informed of the counselors' revelation, things took a turn for the worst. I officially had a disability, a learning and psychological problem. Something was wrong with me. I was told over and over again that I needed to work harder to be like everyone else. My younger brother was smarter than me and I was going to struggle. The world as I knew it was not as amazing and big and beautiful and penetrating as I came to believe. I was broken and needed to be fixed. This would take an emotional toll.

This is the story of many like me. I never had behavior problems or lacked building friendships and bonds. Due to the lack of resources and training for teachers and parents at that time, I did not do particularly well in school. My prep school grades were average and I needed to “sit down and focus”. Through the years I was finally able to get into and see a licensed therapist who introduced the idea that I didn’t have a learning disability but I had ADHD. After all the tests and scans, her diagnosis was positive. But this time I decided to take matters into my own hands. In high school, I actively began to research what this meant for me. That this was not a disability but rather a process on how my brain observes and responds to reality around me. My mind was working faster than my body could keep up with. My brain was trying to process everything my mind was discovering moment to moment and it was putting in work. I decided to change how I perceived myself. You see, I loved superheroes. All of them. But Superman was my favorite. He was just so powerful and could do so many things. And it came with a weakness, kryptonite. If ever it was near, he became helpless and vulnerable. His experience was familiar to me. I wanted to reshape what ADHD meant to me, to redefine it and build the rest of my life from there. I wanted to be Superman. ADHD made me powerful. I could find interest in so many things and become them. I had a superpower. But like all super heroes, it comes at a cost. I needed to learn to finish what I began. Wayne Dyer says “If you change the way you see the world, the world you see changes.” And that’s exactly what I did. I changed the way I saw myself. Not broken or wrong, but super.

I learned to play 4 different instruments. Became the leader and Drum Major of my high school band…. even won the state grand championship. I was the commissioner of rallies and mascot. I wrote sketches and scenes performed in front of the whole school (2500 students). I played football and basketball, and even joined the chess club. I went on to graduate high school with a 3.9 GPA and got accepted to USC. I then earned my first Bachelors degree in performing arts and communications. With ADHD, as you can imagine, that wasn’t enough. I decided to get my second Bachelors in English then went on to earn my Masters degree from the University of Florida. Even built my own computer.

Each of us are so unique and beautiful and different. We often get trapped in a particular way of thinking and behaving that if an individual does not fit the prescribed normalities of a civilized community, then something must be “wrong” with them. On the contrary, I suggest it could be the core of what is each of our superpower. With ADHD, being hyper-stimulated can be seen as impulsive and uncontrolled, but it can also be a deeper emotional connection to the world around us. Not finishing or completing a task could be seen as lazy and unfocused, but it can also be seen as living presently and in the moment. It all depends on how we see the world. Those of us who are tasked with assisting the shaping of the perception of those individuals who are still trying to understand themselves all have an important responsibility. Where medication is appropriate, moderation is suggested. Medications are not the instant solution, rather only a means to assist in the self-work. We also should be more conscious and aware of how we speak about intelligence. Rather it be logical/ mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or kinesthetic, intelligence can manifest itself in different forms. Acknowledgment and praise of our strengths and assist with our weaknesses. It is a lifelong journey that I am proud to be part of.