Developer with ADHD? You’re not alone.
There’s enough of an overlap between people with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and people who code for a living that programmers with ADHD have their own subreddit. Other subreddits abound with ADHD-related advice-givers and advice-seekers. We’ve also discussed ADHD and the broader topic of neurodivergency on the Stack Overflow Podcast, with co-host Ceora Ford describing her experience being diagnosed with ADHD and persistent misconceptions around neurodiversity in the tech community.
ADHD diagnosis rates are on the rise for both adults and kids, though as you might expect it’s tough to know whether this rise is attributable to a higher incidence of ADHD or simply an increase in the number of diagnoses made. Either way, more people are understanding their experiences and abilities through the lens of ADHD, and this includes many people who code. But is there really a connection between programming and ADHD? And could it be that people with ADHD are particularly well-suited to programming careers?
A perfect fit?
Many developers with ADHD feel their job is a perfect fit for how they think and approach problems. “Coding can give ADHD brains exactly the kind of stimulation they crave,” explains full-stack developer Abbey Perini. “Not only is coding a creative endeavor that involves constantly learning new things, but also once one problem is solved, there’s always a brand new one to try.”
In addition to a revolving door of fresh challenges that can keep people with ADHD engaged, coding can reward and encourage a state of hyperfocus: a frequently cited symptom of ADHD that developer Neil Peterson calls “a state of laser-like concentration in which distractions and even a sense of passing time seem to fade away.” It’s easy to draw parallels between hyperfocus and the flow state, a distraction-free groove in which programmers, writers, musicians, artists, and other creators produce their best work (occasionally while forgetting to eat). Our paid platform, Stack Overflow for Teams, is popular with developers in large part because it helps them avoid distraction and protect the productive sanctity of their flow state.
But for every quality that makes coding perfect for people with ADHD (or vice versa), there’s another that could represent a particular hurdle. For instance, ADHD can make people more vulnerable to inattentive mistakes, missed deadlines, or unfinished projects. A perennial question on Reddit is some variation of “Programmers with ADHD, how do you stay on track?”
Combating stigma with candor
The reality is that while some forms of neurodivergence might lend themselves to certain careers (I’ve always thought that my obsessive-compulsive disorder makes me a better copyeditor, for example), individual results will continue to vary.
But it’s good news that many programmers with ADHD seem emboldened to share their experiences, offer advice, and ask for support and accommodation when they need it. And as we discussed on a recent podcast episode, more developers (and their managers) are having conversations about how to support the success of neurodiverse team members.
An open dialogue about ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity is a crucial step in dismantling the remaining stigma around neurodiversity in tech. These conversations happen best in psychologically safe environments—something for managers to take to heart, especially in a time when many of us are already feeling increased pressure thanks to industry-wide layoffs.
Making work and hiring more accessible to neurodiverse people benefits everyone in the organization. Neurodiverse people can contribute unique problem-solving approaches, an affinity for hard skills like data analysis, and a tendency toward perfectionism that can elevate overall quality, says Mariann Lowery, Product/UX Research Lead at Stack Overflow. And making the workplace more inclusive can increase employee engagement and give us a greater sense of purpose at work—whether we identify as neurodiverse or not.Tags: adhd, neurodivergence
I don’t like taking a broad basket of human traits that don’t mesh with the status quo and calling it a “neurodevelopmental disorder”. Humans today live nothing like they did for 99.9% of their time on earth. Really let that thought sink in. Perhaps these traits aren’t the disorders. Perhaps the status quo is the disorder. Just thinking out loud.
It’s not just not meshing with the status quo, people with ADHD literally have a deficit in the function of their executive system. Short attention spans, general creativity or jumping from one task/topic to another are stereotypical ADHD traits, but many don’t exhibit any of these. It’s hard to state any specific symptom that applies to every person with the disorder as every person is different and adapts to the condition in their own way, but it all stems from underperforming executive function. With that said common traits like time blindness, general or conditional lack of motivation and general disregard for risks don’t have upsides, they are all detriments to daily functioning, and there is a reason that the field of psychiatry recognizes the disorder.
Good points, and I agree that the common traits are mostly “detriments to daily functioning”. While trndjc has a point in saying that parts of what it means to be “functioning” is also defined by society, and it would be easier if the society would different. But I believe even in a different, more ADHD-friendly/understanding society, people with ADHD would be still suffering, because it really affects simple everyday life and relationships negatively. I agree that it has mostly downsides, and only few upsides, like people with ADHD can often be more creative and producive in their hyperfocused state. I also want to remind that there are two different forms of ADHD – the well-known one with hyper-activity, and the lesser-known one with hypo-activity, which share similar problems for everyday life, but also come with unique problems.
I do think the Stack Overflow sidebar is like a mousetrap for people with ADHD 😅
It’s proven people with ADHD are well suited for productivity work.
ADHD is actually a combination of two separate “disorders”: ADD and HD. They are so similar that it was realized that they are essentially just two variations of the same thing.
HD is hyperactivity disorder, or, now referred to ADHD Subtype: No attention deficit.
The stereotype of ADHD is a problem with short attention spans, etc, but also presents as just the opposite, as this article’s topic is all about.
But in many cases, hyperfocus is the norm – without the short attention span at all. It results instead in long attention spans. In other words, making statements like “people with ADHD all suffer from short attention spans” is just an uninformed stereotype.
Probably the only definite common characteristics are the personality quirks that common with ADHD.
You have a point.
What about adhd people not being able to read documentations?
If they are not interested in it, they don’t read. If the documentation is a mess and not concise (no nice structured index, …) , they will have a hard time.
I was also an electronic engineer – and there you have to read a lot of data sheets during design process – but e. g. Texas Instruments has the same structure for all IC datasheets – e. g. “Absolute Maximum Ratings” – what helps. But now as a software engineer I learned to read RFCs.
There is one more aspect that makes ADHD (and autism for that matter) a good fit. Thinking in relations rather than lanes.
And one more – if we got the interest/challenge/grip in solving a nasty problem/bug – we do not give up (or far much later than neurotypical) people. And our creativity helps to address the analysis process from very different angles.
I keep hearing about the increasing prevalence of these ‘disorders’ and wondering why nobody else seems to see the common thread. Years back I read of an Autism hot-spot in the USA. The only one known to exist at the time. It was Silicon Valley. For years now, the whole ‘neurodivergence/high-tech’ correlation has been debated at length, not just at Stack Overflow, but all over the world. We as a species are perhaps the most successful mammal ever to populate our planet. We’ve come to live everywhere on the face of the earth and quite a few places above and below the surface. Why? Well, our most distinctive trait is adaptability. Now we find ourselves having constructed a high-tech computerized world and, oddly enough, a bunch of people seem to be popping up that have neurological disorders that just *happen* to make them excellent fits for high-tech, computerized work. Imagine that. Maybe start thinking less ‘disorder’ and more ‘next-generation unit’ It’s not like humans have always been as we were 50 years ago and we have not changed at all in the past 200,000 years. We change constantly. Perhaps we find ourselves in the position of watching ourselves change into what we need to be for the next phase of our evolution.
I hate labels like ADHD – they feel like binary classifications, you either have it or you don’t, when it’s actually very fuzzy. Many of us have some of the characteristics but not others.
But if there is such a thing as ADHD, and if programmers are more likely than others to have it, this immediately raises questions about the gender imbalance in programming, because ADHD is supposedly three times as common in males as in females.
It’s important to note that ADHD is more commonly *diagnosed* in the male population. I don’t know that we can say for certain that it’s more common. As someone who acutely feels the gender imbalance, I feel fairly confident saying that it’s unrelated to neuro-diversity. 🙂
I am Aspergers, (now called something different in case somebody gets offended) and share many of the features associated with ADHD, particularly the obsessions and not giving up until a problem is solved.
Apart from writing commercial software, I also tutor primary, secondary and university students, most of whom are neurodivergent and need more than the educational institutions can provide, either with help to write-up projects, or to work on some aspect of code their teachers are not familiar with.
I also feel it is inevitable that the expansion of high tech will be followed by a gathering of those who gravitate to the field because their neurological wiring fits the task perfectly.
Almost every programming deliverable I ever worked on in 20+ years required teamwork on a number of levels: discovery, planning, testing, etc.
We all have varying strengths in different areas. A brilliant coder who is deficient in other skills may still succeed, but there better be someone on the team to compensate. We are all multi-dimensional people and almost always working in a multi-dimensional team. So the sweet spot is to find a team where you can make a great contribution given your particular strengths.
Having said that, the recent stabbing by a clearly deranged, bat-shit crazy and drug addled microsoft employee should be a cautionary that some deficiencies are not safe to try and deal with.
I’m in my late 40s. Grew up teaching myself to program Commodores. I’ve not been diagnosed with ADHD or Aspergers, but my son has (he’s currently majoring in computer science). I’ve never thought about it till now, but a lot of my strengths in development do seem to overlap with the traits pointed out in this article and comments.
I feel like these traits have been around much longer than we realize and we only now are starting to label them.
This article was a good read but if you really wanted to cater to ADHD people, you would of had a temple run video along the side for us while we read. Kidding 😀