Is this you? No, really, is this you?

By Mykola Bilokonsky

You are a software engineer.

You consider yourself an introvert, and you really appreciate "engineering time", where you prefer to work for extended uninterrupted periods because interruptions wreck you. You are used to being misunderstood. Ever since you can remember the people around you have been kind of baffling: they constantly fail to notice stuff that's really obvious and important to you, and then they have the audacity to get frustrated with you for not understanding them.

But whatever, you can deal with this, right? This is just how life goes, right? Everyone's like this, right?

Right?

It's really been like this as long as you can remember. Maybe even as early as kindergarten, when you distinctly remember feeling "Wow, I guess all these kids must already know each other?" because how else would they know how to just start playing together? You might have gotten really, really good at languages -- or you might have eschewed the humanities entirely and focused on things like Math and Science. Regardless, you were in it for the systems -- grammar just makes sense to you, in the same way software engineering just makes sense to you now. Math, you finally understood, was just a specialized language for referring to the relations between things -- sure, okay!

Socially, things were always a little weird for you. Other people never quite behaved in ways that made sense to you, and especially when younger you probably socialized by getting 'adopted' by some other kid who seemed to know what was going on. Whatever you studied you poured yourself into deeply as long as it held your interest -- your mind expanded into the space your lessons created and eagerly walked hidden pathways that your classmates didn't see. You asked the questions in class that surprised the teacher and annoyed your peers, and you probably got damn good grades.

You may have been bullied.

You likely went to college and focused on something that interested you -- perhaps you doubled down on language, or maybe you went into engineering or music or math. It was a revelation, because maybe for the first time in your life you were surrounded by a self-selecting group of peers, some of whom shared your passion for analysis and deep thinking. You didn't have to go to great lengths to establish a shared context, for instance. You could speak words that were meaningful to you and someone else could understand and offer a meaningful response, and this made you feel uncomfortable at first but you really loved it. Your experience of college was maybe a bit different than you expected - certainly nothing like the movies you watched as a kid. You got really into a weird hobby, maybe, and didn't end up going to too many parties.

Relationships and intimacy have always been a bit fraught for you. You frequently find yourself trying to figure out what you're supposed to be feeling, and you work hard to show your partner the person you want to be. Maybe when you first moved in with someone you had a bit of a freakout that has made you nervous to think about ever since, or maybe meeting a significant other's family has been so anxiety-inducing as to prove impossible. Maybe you have a string of failed relationships behind you, each of them starting out so promisingly and then imploding catastrophically and confusingly once the initial honeymoon phase was over and it was time to really get to know, get to grow with another person. You don't know how to do that, and every time you try you seem to make someone upset.

You're a software engineer at least partly because computers are much easier to communicate with than people. When a computer doesn't understand you it's because you've done something wrong. When a computer says something incorrect it's also because you've done something wrong. You can step through and rigorously debug the problem, identifying and isolating the mistake. The more you played around with tech the more you liked it - and when you discovered programming it blew your mind, because you intuitively understood the relational nature of computation and found yourself suddenly gifted with superpowers.

When you entered the working world you were REALLY confused, though. You were able to complete a week's worth of assignments in an afternoon. It was really obvious to you who was working intelligently and who was not, and you had to learn, perhaps painfully, that sharing that kind of feedback isn't always constructive. Maybe one day you got some criticism about something you did and it really hurt in ways you didn't expect. Maybe you found yourself reacting defensively, and the next thing you know you're in a meeting with HR over what to you was clearly all a big misunderstanding, but nobody is smiling. Or maybe instead someone recognized that you were having a tough time, and stepped in to defuse the situation.

Regardless, your agency was compromised. You found yourself resenting the arbitrary and unwritten rules of the professional world: you have to be at your desk and looking busy even when you're just thinking; let people say things that are not true if correcting them publicly will embarrass someone; people will ignore your advice and then something will break because of it and it's very important not to get too upset.

You're used to modeling the world in a specific way, but school didn't actually prepare you in any way for the complex web of social dynamics that, just like in kindergarten, everyone else seems to grok. It's really frustrating, maybe you've been fired once or twice, maybe you've left a few jobs out of embarrassment. You eventually figured it out -- or maybe you didn't! The thing is, programming has never been the hard part of work, for you. The people have been the much more interesting and challenging domain to master.

Today, you're an engineer who really deeply understands and enjoys your stack. You have workflows that you can do in your sleep, you know intuitively what the current state of your system is and you have a powerful intuition for downstream problems. Maybe you've figured out how to play the social game, in which case you're probably gregarious and supportive and kind to your coworkers. Maybe you haven't, in which case you're super productive but don't attend a lot of office functions. Either way is fine as long as you've found a place where you feel comfortable!

At the same time, you've had a sense for years that something isn't quite... right. You've probably learned to ignore it. Sure things get super stressful sometimes. Sure you find yourself really unreasonably tired, especially after meeting-heavy days. Sure when you get downtime sometimes all you can do is just sit there doing nothing -- maybe you feel bad about that? Maybe you use an abnormally high number of sick days purely for mental health reasons. Maybe you've got a substance abuse issue. You're probably struggling with codependency, anxiety and/or depression. You think of yourself as just "a depressed person", but try not to let it define you. You feel constantly on the edge of burnout, but no matter how many vacations you take it doesn't seem to get any better.

Maybe you are sensitive to certain kinds of sensory stimuli - like, you can't wear synthetic fabric because it just feels gross. Maybe you can't eat peaches because the peach fuzz on the roof of your mouth is unbearable. Maybe you can't go into a well-lit room without sunglasses, maybe every sound you hear comes in at the same volume. Maybe a bunch of these kinds of things or more bother you, and maybe you've forgotten because you've just pushed through them your whole life. Maybe you've accepted that you're just kind of weird and different.

But maybe -- and this may be the best news you've ever received -- you're autistic.

Many (if not most) autistic people would tell you similar stories about their personal histories, especially those who have gone undiagnosed into adulthood. If these descriptions resonate with you -- maybe not exactly, but maybe you can see the shape I'm trying to paint -- then it's worth considering the possibility that you may be neurodivergent.

Autism is one form of neurodiversity, and what I'm describing above is a very autistic experience - but there's a ton of overlap with ADHD, Dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions. We've learned so much about neurodiversity in the past ten years, and even if you consider yourself fairly well-informed about autism it's worth updating your understanding.

Your first step, quite reasonably, might be to go take a look at the official diagnostic criteria for autism. But autistic or not, if you do that you will in all likelihood not see yourself reflected -- those criteria are purely behavioral, while the experience of being autistic is purely subjective. Non-autistic (or "allistic") experts on autism document observable behavior but don't actually understand what they're seeing. I tried to reframe those criteria in a way that makes them feel human and relatable rather than inhuman and other.

I'm writing this blog post because my own self-diagnosis at age 34 and formal diagnosis this past fall at age 36 changed my life, and I know for a fact that there going to be some autistic people reading this who don't know that they're autistic.

If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend perusing AutismTranslated, a subreddit to make autistic traits more recognizable and relatable to those of us who subjectively experience them. I'm personally most active on twitter these days and you can always find me there, along with hundreds of other folks using the #actuallyAutistic, #allAutistics and #askingAutistics hashtags. Autism is a condition particularly vulnerable to intersectional dynamics, which means that resources like #autisticWhileBlack and /r/aspergirls are crucial to folks in those demographics.

Finally, as preparation for this blog post I asked diagnosed neurodivergent tech workers on twitter to volunteer if they're willing to answer questions, and as of this writing over a hundred people have answered. So if you want to know more about what this is like -- whether you want to better understand yourself or you have other people in your life you want to learn how to better support -- please check out that thread and the huge number of responses, and don't be afraid to reach out to people!

If you're autistic and undiagnosed you're living life on hard mode and you don't even know it. Learning who you are, learning what your authentic needs are and learning how to heal from years of maladaptive coping mechanisms can and will change your life in a million ways. You can move from barely getting by to thriving as your most authentic self.

I see you and I believe in you, and there are a lot of us out here ready to help. <3