What developers with ADHD want you to know

For this followup post, we spoke with two Stack Overflow software engineers with ADHD about their experiences being diagnosed as adults, taking medication, and communicating about their ADHD at work.

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Note: For this article, we spoke with two Stack Overflow software engineers who have been diagnosed with ADHD but who wish to remain anonymous.

A few months ago, we wrote about the overlap between people with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and people who code for a living. We noted the plethora of online advice by and for programmers with ADHD and the rise in ADHD diagnoses for both kids and adults. And we wondered whether there’s anything to the fairly widespread idea that coding is a particularly good career fit for a person with ADHD. (For our purposes, we’ll use “developer” and “programmer” more or less interchangeably to refer to people whose jobs involve a lot of coding.)

“Coding can give ADHD brains exactly the kind of stimulation they crave,” writes one full-stack developer. “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.”

Of course, when you’re talking about two things as complex as 1) the human brain and 2) computer programming, generalizations like “people with ADHD make great programmers” can only take you so far. Takes like that risk collapsing the experiences of people with ADHD, skimming over individual variations and nuances in favor of an appealing soundbite.

For this follow up post, we spoke with two Stack Overflow software engineers with ADHD about their experiences being diagnosed as adults, taking medication, and communicating about their ADHD at work. Here’s what developers with ADHD want you to understand.

It’s less superpower, more invisible disability

It can be frustrating for people with ADHD to hear a symptom like hyperfocus referred to as a “superpower,” when in reality hyperfocus has downsides—plus it exists in conjunction with other symptoms that can be much less empowering, like executive dysfunction.

As someone with an OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) diagnosis, I’ve heard similarly frustrating takes: I wish I had OCD so my house could be as clean as yours! (You do not wish this.) Oh, I’m super-OCD too; I color-code my bookshelves. (Not the same!)

In fact, ADHD is an invisible disability, which is exactly what it sounds like: “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities” (Invisible Disabilities Association). Plenty of forms of neurodivergence, including autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and learning differences can be considered invisible disabilities.

Sure, developers with conditions like ADHD might occasionally find that an output of their condition gives them an edge. In part one of this series, we recognized that the hyperfocus associated with ADHD—“a state of laser-like concentration in which distractions and even a sense of passing time seem to fade away,” as one developer put it—can help programmers access the sought-after flow state.

Other developers with ADHD say their thinking style lends itself to creative problem-solving. “One positive aspect of being a dev with ADHD,” explained one engineer we talked to, “is that my brain zooming around different ideas can help with inventiveness and creativity, and seeing things in a different light can really help with solving more difficult problems.” Intersectional thinking FTW.

Still, many developers want to be clear that it's not all upside. “You get into flow, and you’re being really, really productive,” one software engineer explained, “but on the opposite end of that, time goes by really quickly, and you realize, ‘Oh, crap, I had three other things I promised somebody today, but I just lost a few hours.’” The engineer also pointed out that developers who progress past the senior level or switch tracks into management are no longer responsible for their individual productivity alone; their role is to multiply the productivity of their team. “That’s where executive dysfunction holds me back a lot,” they said.

It’s not the coding; it’s the accommodations

What if it’s not that people with ADHD make good developers; it’s that developers are more likely to have access to the accommodations that make ADHD manageable?

Companies that employ developers, particularly tech companies with flexible and hybrid schedules and robust healthcare coverage, are in a better position to accommodate people with ADHD (and other invisible disabilities) than employers in other industries.

For instance, when it comes to managing their ADHD at work, one of our engineers stressed the freedom of a job that can be largely asynchronous and remote: “It helps a lot that I have a job that supports flexible hours and isn’t babysitting me all day.” In tech and developer circles, the unfair stigma associated with ADHD and other forms of neurodivergence is beginning to dissipate, as we discussed on the Stack Overflow podcast last year. “I’ve been open about my diagnosis mostly,” said one interviewee. “I might not always refer to it by name, but I definitely bring up things that are relevant when I need to,” such as a need to establish a firm deadline to stay focused.

So a better way of putting the relationship between coding and ADHD might be that (some) coding jobs are likely to give (some) people with ADHD what they need to thrive professionally.

It’s also reasonable to assume that people with reliable, affordable healthcare are more likely to seek out and receive an ADHD diagnosis and the accommodations, including access to medication and therapy, that come with that diagnosis. That’s another reason why it might seem like there’s an overlap between people who code and people with ADHD—US-based developers tend to have good healthcare coverage through their employers.

A diagnosis might be life changing

Both software engineers we interviewed were diagnosed as adults, in both cases in their late 20s after they’d already embarked on their careers. “I was talking to a friend who mentioned she went to a doctor and was surprised to find that she had ADHD,” one of the engineers said. “She talked about the symptoms and I thought, ‘Hmm, that sounds familiar.’”

For both engineers, being diagnosed as adults cast their lifelong experiences in a new light. “I always just thought that I was lazy and had a tendency towards procrastination,” said one engineer. “But once I embraced [my diagnosis] and realized that a lot of stuff I thought was an ‘everyone problem’ was not actually a problem for neurotypical folks, I felt a lot better about myself and about the strategies I needed to cope.”

Being diagnosed as an adult, said the other interviewee, “is really interesting, because you all of a sudden understand where a lot of your weird traits come from. You realize, ‘OK, that’s why this is hard for me; that’s why I struggle with this or that.”

One interviewee called their ADHD medication “a life-changer.” The other called it “a complete game-changer for me in terms of focus and ability to get things done.” An official diagnosis is generally a necessary prerequisite for ADHD medication, so for many folks, getting a diagnosis is the first big step toward effectively managing their ADHD.

A diagnosis can also give people with ADHD the confidence to ask for accommodations at work or school—and even the awareness to know what kinds of accommodations are available and would benefit them. “A diagnosis definitely helped me at work,” said one engineer. “I haven't ever asked for formal accommodations, but knowing more about how I personally work—for example, if I don't have a deadline, it’s basically impossible for me to get it done—has helped me a lot in advocating for myself and my own working style.”

(Neuro)diversity is strength

As we said in part one, dispelling the stigma around neurodiversity requires an open dialogue about ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity or invisible disability. At Stack Overflow, we think everyone benefits when work and the hiring process are inclusive of neurodiverse people. An estimated 15-20% of the population is considered neurodiverse; that’s a lot of talent employers can miss out on if they’re not willing or able to offer certain accommodations. And you never know—the next person on your team to receive an ADHD diagnosis might be you.

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