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Silicon Valley’s neurodiversity problem

Diversity is more than just race and gender.

Credit: Rebecca Burgess and Sciencebase.

If you haven’t spent time in the Bay Area, you might expect that people here are so used to autism that autistic folks (and those with autistic-adjacent traits) are well-integrated into Bay Area society. After all, the Bay Area is home to both one of the largest clusters of autism diagnoses in the US and to the trés geek tech industry—and we all “know” that geeks and autism fit like hand and glove.

And you might expect, given that the tech industry is one of the most prominent consumers of mental labor, that they would be deeply concerned with how to maximize the productivity of all their employees, wherever they lie in the multidimensional mind-space that we can call “neurodiversity”.

You might expect those things, but you would be wrong.

One of the hard life lessons I’ve learned in the Bay Area is that, even among software engineers, my autistic traits make me stick out like a sore thumb. I can churn out code like nobody’s business, I’m pretty decent at API design, and I even make a decent tech writer. And yet…

I cannot—cannot—make mutual eye contact with any human being: not a stranger, not a co-worker, not a friend, not a lover, not my mother, no one. In conversations I often fake eye contact by looking at the other person’s mouth, and then I glean what I can of their eyebrow position and eye movements with my peripheral vision… but interpreting other people’s emotions this way is mentally taxing. I have to remember explicit rules like “oh, if the right side of their lip (my left) curls upward, it’s a self-deprecating half-smile; but if the left side of their lip (my right) curls upward, it’s a contemptuous half-smile”. If it were polite to do so, I would prefer to simply look away and gauge their emotions from their voice—I find voices much more intuitive than faces. Even e-mail is better, in its own way. Yeah, interpreting the emotions of an e-mail is more error-prone… but I can sit there and puzzle over it, taking the time to interpret it correctly, without insulting my conversation partner.

When it comes time to reach out to people outside of my team, I have a hard time knowing who to reach out to. Even after 7 years doing site reliability at Google, I still relied on my teammates to keep track of who was working on what, and who I should talk to about adding feature X to service Y. I could keep track of roughly 10 people at the company, and when my own team at Google grew past that size, I lost all ability to interact with our 100-plus-person developer counterpart team without someone else in SRE setting up a meeting for me. (Happily, my current company is much smaller — I at least have a vague idea of “if I need to chat about feature X, talk to so-and-so”.)

Presenting design documents is a full-on nightmare for me. Like many autistics, I’m a perfectionist. That perfectionism comes from a place of anxiety: I’m deeply afraid that something bad will happen if I don’t get things perfect—to the point that, on some level, I subconsciously believe that it’s better to not do a thing at all than to do the thing imperfectly, because the (nebulous, undefined, mostly in-my-head) consequences of a screw-up are just too large. So when I present a design document, that document represents many hours of poring over the design, trying to consider every possible flaw, and polishing the writing of the document itself. But there seems to be a culture in the Valley that you aren’t done reviewing a design document until you’ve found at least one criticism that will require a change in the design. I don’t know if this is some sort of territory-marking behavior, or if it’s just anxiety that you’re not doing your job as a reviewer if you don’t find something wrong, but either way… well, let’s just say that I don’t take it well when people criticize my design docs. I’ve been known to mope for weeks or months as I mull over the comments and second-guess myself, trying to discern which ones were genuine criticism because I missed something vs which ones were merely change for the sake of change.

And there’s the sensory overload. I’m okay by myself or in meetings where only one person talks at a time, but then there are office parties, social offsites, exercises where the room splits into groups such that members of each group converse among themselves, and so on. Since these sorts of activities aren’t part of the weekday routine, I’m already starting off on the wrong foot… but then, I’m supposed to interact with a group of people I don’t know particularly well, in a room filled with unrelated conversations. I’m able to tune out the irrelevant conversations… mostly… but I’m still fundamentally aware of them on a subconscious level, especially if they’re emotionally charged. By the end of a day of this, all I want to do is go home, curl up, and cry myself to sleep out of sheer overwhelming stress.

So, what can we do to change this?

1. Most autistic folks need structure and predictability.

Ideally, this means having daily and weekly routines that are disrupted only for reasons that can be predicted well ahead of time.

To provide this predictability, your company should:

  • Define clear lines of code and project ownership.
  • Provide a central place where anyone can look up who is responsible for a given aspect of a given project. And keep it up to date.
  • Set a clear objective for each employee to accomplish.
  • Be explicit and honest about what the company expects from an employee: less “you’re doing great, keep up the good work!” and more “you’re doing great, you did X and Y very well, and you did Z acceptably”. It helps if you can point to concrete examples of what was done well or what was done poorly.
  • Don’t call mandatory all-hands meetings on short notice, unless it’s to announce something of truly company-shaking importance (e.g. layoffs).

2. Many autistic folks have a hard time navigating social nuance and interpersonal politics.

A certain amount of this social navigation is a required piece of the job—developers, autistic or not, need to be able to negotiate on API contracts and feature priorities, for instance—but most companies go far beyond that. This is a skill that autistics can learn, but expecting autistic developers to navigate office politics to succeed in their career is like expecting your developers to write code while walking a high-wire. You’re running a business, not a circus, so why would you include a high-wire act as part of the job description?

Here are some things your company can do to help:

  • Don’t require employees to enter management or leadership roles based on arbitrary measures like seniority.

(Some autistic people are willing and able to take on these roles, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to be stress-inducing, and they should only be taken on with enthusiastic consent. An important corollary: if you do tie career advancement to leadership positions, then you should also be willing to accommodate a pool of developers who’d rather stall their careers than jump to a leadership role!)

  • Don’t put people on the spot. Whenever possible, use non-confrontational consensus-building processes, such as presenting an option and asking for anonymous feedback, then having that feedback be read and summarized by someone who is not emotionally invested in the option (for or against).
  • Set priorities top-down, instead of letting developers with strong personalities form bottom-up coalitions around what to do and how to do it.
  • Be very careful that performance reviews are actually reviewing performance, not how much the reviewer(s) identify with the employee.
  • If you do use peer review, don’t force the employee to pick their own peer reviewers, as that only works if the employee can navigate office politics well enough to know “I can’t pick X as a reviewer, because X doesn’t respect my work”.
  • Don’t hire for “culture fit”, which is really a code word for “I like this person / I identify with this person / This person and I have common non-work interests”.

(Avoiding “culture fit” hiring is actually important for promoting all types of diversity, not just neurodiversity: people of different races and genders and sexualities bring different life experiences to the table, so they’re not going to be have good “culture fit” if that fit is being judged by a panel of neurotypical straight cisgender white men.)

3. Autistic folks often have issues with sensory overload.

A given autistic individual might find certain sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and/or smells to be distracting or even overwhelming. Many adult autistics have learned how to bury their distress and continue functioning (for a while), but doing so is stressful and mentally exhausting.

There are some things you can do to help:

  • Many autistics will “stim” (self-stimulate) if they are starting to feel overwhelmed. This drowns out the external stimulation with a new stimulus that’s under the autistic person’s self-control (and therefore predictable). Managers should learn to recognize stimming — and should offer a stimming employee a chance to leave the overwhelming situation and find somewhere quiet to calm down.

(Some common stims include rocking back-and-forth, flapping one’s hands at the wrist, and bonking one’s head against the wall. Stims are different from ADHD-style fidgeting: stims usually have a regular cadence to them, whereas fidgeting is usually irregular.)

  • Avoid open-office environments. Yeah, I realize that no one is doing per-person offices anymore, but you should limit the number of employees within visual and hearing range of each other (e.g. with sound-baffled dividers or per-team “fishbowl” offices separated by opaque walls).
  • Allow employees to customize their desktop computer, e.g. by installing alternative window managers / UI shells. Some autistics may find certain desktop environments too visually distracting.
  • When conducting group training and other such activities, try to avoid “split into teams” exercises; and if you elect to hold such exercises anyway, ask the participants to keep their voices down (soft but not whispering). The goal is no more than one person in a room talking at a time.
  • Avoid policies which demand or prioritize face-to-face conversations about work matters — especially group conversations. Instead, encourage the use of e-mail and text chat, to the point that “I’d prefer to discuss this over e-mail” is a normal and perfectly reasonable request.

(In-person work conversations require the participants to combine the literal content of what’s being said, the emotional coloring of the speech, and the office-political implications, and then to respond in kind in real time. Even for autistics who have developed the skills to do this well, such conversations can be exhausting — especially if it’s a group conversation and the autistic must additionally keep track of “which people reacted negatively when person X said Y” and “which people could I convince to support option Z”.)

(Encouraging employees to spend informal time around each other to understand each other better may help… or it may backfire, e.g. if the people involved have life experiences that are simply too different. If two people are failing to communicate over e-mail, and one or both are autistic, then in-person contact may help them to empathize with each other and find common ground… but it’s probably best to have a mediator present who’s aware of any differences in abilities and can steer the conversation around those differences.)

  • Never make attendance mandatory at office parties or offsites. Let each individual judge if the event is a good fit for them, and don’t hold it against them if they decline — even if they attended a previous event.

4. Autistic people are more likely than the base population to have anxiety disorders and/or depression.

It’s worth ensuring that managers have basic familiarity with the anxiety disorders (esp. GAD, SAD, OCD, and PTSD) and also with depression. For one, managers should be able to spot possible symptoms in their employees and encourage those employees to seek professional help. For two, managers will have a better understanding of what work-related issues might be affecting the performance of their employees, and give them insights into how to address those problems — e.g. recognizing that person A’s behavior triggers person B’s anxiety and therefore separating A and B so that both can be productive.

(Why does this association exist, between autism and anxiety? Some of it may be neurological… but a lot of it certainly comes from the fact that many autistic folks had a hard time establishing childhood friendships, and a fair number of autistics have also experienced bullying or other emotional abuse that can leave permanent scars on the psyche.)

5. Autistic people may have ADHD or symptoms that mimic ADHD.

Some people with autism find it difficult to focus or sit still during presentations, meetings where they are not expected to speak, and training videos or podcasts. If vital information is being presented, it’s best to offer it in written form as well: even something as simple as an outline of a presentation in paper form can help tremendously with helping the autistic person follow the presentation attentively, and providing online slides / meeting notes / full transcriptions is even better.

(You should probably be doing that anyway, as an ADA accommodation for deaf employees. Just saying.)

6. Autism is correlated with GI disorders like IBS, IBD, and celiac disease.

Let’s just say that, if your employee says they need to go home sick right now, they need to go home sick right now. It ain’t gonna be pretty if you force them to stay.

(Thankfully, the places I’ve worked at have generally adhered to “let the employee go home sick if they say they need to”.)

(Why does this correlation exist? Well… no one’s sure. Genetics, perhaps? Stress? Who knows?)

7. Autism is correlated with trans-ness and non-binary genders.

You’re already making your gender-diverse workplace into one that welcomes employees of all genders, right?

(Again, no one knows where this correlation comes from, but it definitely exists and it’s something you should be aware of if you care about workplace diversity.)

Many of these accommodations are things that would be beneficial to all employees, autistic or not, and very few are truly specific to autism — yet Silicon Valley companies generally don’t do them. In fact, some of it goes against Silicon Valley’s conventional wisdom, especially the bit about prioritizing e-mail over face-to-face meetings and the bit about “culture fit” as a hiring criterion. And ultimately, these suggestions are just some armchair pontificating from one autistic person. But… think about it. These things could make your employees happier, more loyal, and more productive.