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Navigating neurodiversity: How can software developers support their mental health in the workplace?

Zoe Cunningham is joined by Aya Stead, software developer at Softwire to talk about neurodiversity in her role. She shares the ways she developed to look after her mental health, in the hope it can help other software engineers too.

If you’re interested in this topic, but short on time, you can read Aya’s story instead: How to take care of your mental health as a software engineer

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Zoe Cunningham: Hello, and welcome to Softwire TechTalks. I’m Zoe Cunningham. We are extremely delighted and grateful to have Aya Stead on today, who is going to be talking with me about the relationship between software development and mental health, which isn’t often discussed. In Stack Overflow’s 2022 Developer Survey, 10.3% of respondents identified as having an anxiety disorder, 9.7% as having a mood or emotional disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder, and 4.27% said they have autism or an autism spectrum disorder. That’s the context for today.

Aya, can I ask you to just share a bit about your background, so I guess your professional role and then also your personal lived experience.

Aya Stead: Yes, so I’m a software developer here at Softwire. I’ve been here about seven months now. I’ve been working in tech in general for about five years as well as, of course, going to university to get my degree. Yes, mental health has always been a big part of my life, because, even before I was in tech, I was in theatre acting. Of course, anxiety, etc., also comes into play when you’re performing on the stage regularly.

You mentioned the kind of categories that Stack Overflow polled and I would technically fall into all three of those – I have diagnosis for generalized anxiety disorder, depression and autism spectrum disorder. Those three things are a big part of my life for better or for worse. You don’t have a choice in that regard. As a result, I’ve very much learned how the roles that I do at my various jobs over the last decades are affected by that side of me.

Zoe: How much difference did it make? Because I think there’s so many different intersecting issues, because, obviously, no one is a label, and that’s not the point of diagnosing people, but at the same time, I think when you’re undiagnosed that can be even harder because then you don’t know what’s happening and you don’t know how to get help or how to deal with it. Did that make a difference to you to be able to say, “Okay, this is what it is”?

Aya: For those three things in particular, I got diagnosed relatively early and it’s been a consistent thing since I was about a teenager. I very recently got diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which is a personality disorder. I can speak from that experience there wherein yes when you get the diagnosis and you know what’s “wrong with you”. I don’t want to say wrong, but once you learn, oh, this is why I’m the way I am, and there is a name for it, you can not only search up material for how to deal with it. etc., but you can find community in it as well, which is always very useful.

I’ve made several friends who also got BPD diagnosis and being able to support each other through it as well, is also very useful. Yes, it’s definitely a very beneficial thing once you can label it, I suppose.

Zoe: Yes, exactly. Even though I agree, it’s not helpful to talk about it as something being wrong with someone but I think that’s your first thought, isn’t it? When it’s like, “what is wrong with me and why am I not like all the people I am interacting with?” Partly because everyone who has any condition is masking to some extent –

Aya: Yes, absolutely.

Zoe: – because everyone’s interacting in the society we’re in. Actually, sometimes you don’t know things about people or maybe they don’t even know them themselves. At the same time, the more rare a condition is, the less likely you are to just meet someone in your job, or in your school, or in your community, and once you know it, you can go out and meet people.

Aya: Yes, exactly. It’s really helpful to be able to do that. A lot of people got diagnosed a much longer time ago and they’ve learned ways to be able to deal with it, which will also become a theme of this podcast, I suppose, is coping mechanisms, etc. Yes, it is always very good to be able to learn those from people as well.

Zoe: There’s enough work to do, I think, in terms of just adapting your own life and coming to terms with things and making it work. Then you mix that with having to earn a living and support yourself and have a professional career. How does that mix, I guess, in terms of the challenges? I think it’s also good to look at where their strengths come from that as well and positive side effects.

Aya: When it comes to how it mixes in with professional life and entering I guess the workforce when you know these things about yourself, is to understand that they are as a part of you, and that won’t change anytime soon for the most part. And understanding, of course, as a result your own limits, your own comfort zone and your own boundaries, and being very aware of that, because when you do start looking at jobs and when you start interviewing for jobs, these are the questions you should be asking in interviews.

For instance, what do you have in place for mental health, well-being of employees etc.,? And understanding that you need to cultivate an environment for yourself, some of the onus is on you, in that regard, to cultivate your environment for yourself where you’ll be comfortable. That’s not always easy but that’s one of the things that’s definitely good to keep in mind.

Zoe: Well, I think that this again is more than one question. It’s actually a lot of questions because I think one of the big challenges that people have told me about is when going for interview if you have a condition that can in any way be masked or you can choose how much of it to share in an interview process and that can obviously go with chronic illnesses as well or other disabilities that you need support for.

What’s your experience been in terms of when it’s helpful to share and when it’s not helpful to share?

Aya: I think it’s, personally, in my experience, it’s always been helpful to share. If it is ”unhelpful” to share and you fear it might impact your ability to get a job or create a negative interview environment, I wouldn’t want to wind up working there anyway.

That turns out being useful information in and of itself. It is very useful to share just because especially if you’re with an interviewer that you feel comfortable with, you developed a rapport with already, I just feel like it’s always a good thing to share it if you are comfortable and happy doing so and if that’s an important thing to you.

I don’t think there’s any downsides to doing so because as I mentioned, if it becomes a situation wherein it’s negatively impacting the interview environment or you feel like it hinders your chances of getting the job, perhaps you don’t want to be there anyway because, for you, long-term, that’s not a very beneficial place to be.

Zoe: You’re adding all that load onto yourself, aren’t you, by having to spend your energy presenting in a certain way rather than engaging with the questions and showing your love and enthusiasm for the subject at hand. I definitely agree and I also think it links in with what you just said before about working out what works for you.

I think another one of the challenges is, yes, you can be diagnosed with a specific disorder which puts you in a group of people but no two people are identical and no two people need support in exactly the same way. I think that definitely from my point of view, having been on the employer side, when someone comes to you and says, “I have this condition, I can do these things if you can put this in place”, that’s such a positive and constructive conversation to have.

I have to say I think why would anyone not want to engage with that and not want to help someone to do their best work? On the other hand, though I do appreciate that it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to be able to say that to someone, particularly at an interview stage when you don’t know them.

Are there any things that you do to help give yourself that courage and encouragement to trust other people?

Aya: Not really. If I develop a rapport with an interviewer then it becomes very easy. If I’m feeling that tension or sometimes you just don’t click with a person, it can be more difficult. I try to remind myself that I’m obviously applying for this job for a reason.

I’ve reached the interview stage, which means they want me to a certain extent and as a result, making my needs known. But, like I say, in a very constructive way could be, if anything, beneficial for the company as well – Like you say, putting things in place is always very useful. To remind yourself that it’s not only just for you, but it also positively impacts other people moving forwards as well. It’s never a bad thing for that.

Zoe: Of course, every time someone is truly themselves, it helps other people be themselves as well, even though they’re a totally different person and being themselves in a totally different way, but it still helps everyone.

We’ve come a little bit then onto the second half of the question of the challenges and the positive effects. Are there things now because I’m sure there must have been dark times that you’ve had of like, “Why me? Why do I have all the challenges?”

Are there also times where you’ve been like, “You know what, this is actually pretty awesome?”

Aya: With things like depression, generalized anxiety, I can’t really say that I’ve ever thought that. I am a person who is on the autism spectrum. I would’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s at the point when they were diagnosing it as such, but now I was just diagnosed with autism.

I can say that the ways in which that has affected me in my thought processes and, like, it gives you a very unique outlook sometimes in the way your mind works. I honestly love that – the way I can interact with autism problems. I get a different view point from someone who might be neurotypical and I’m going to appreciate the way my mind can work in those situations.

Yes, it’s just really quite cool to know that I can bring a different perspective and a different way of thinking to a problem and help provide solutions in that regard. As well as that, it’s also nice because I have experience in talking to people, I can talk on behalf of other people who might have a bit more difficulty talking in that regard.

I can do things, like this podcast for instance, where I can help raise awareness for it. It’s really nice to be able to do that and talk for people just like myself.

Zoe: It’s back to community as well, isn’t it? Actually, with one of the strongest bonds we form as human beings is being part of a community with other people who are similar and then you really want to help each other out, and yes, help everyone do the best that they can. That’s really awesome.

Talking more broadly about software developers, and obviously, you’ve had experience not just at Softwire but in other organisations as well, do you think you’ve seen the numbers that were reflected in the Stack Overflow Survey? Do you think that’s reflective of the interactions that you’ve had and the people you’ve worked with?

Aya: Admittedly, I thought they were surprisingly low.


Aya: I don’t know because I cultivate the environment and I spar myself with people I see more eye to eye with, and as a result, the numbers may feel inflated to me personally, but I actually thought they were relatively low, especially only about 5% being on the autism spectrum disorder is not at all indicative of my personal experience.

That also then goes to show the kinds of people who might be answering Stack Overflow polls are different to those who are actually in the workforce maybe, I don’t know. Yes, I honestly was surprised by how low some of those numbers were.

Zoe: I don’t know if there’s been any research in terms of like how widely diagnosed people with ASDR are, because I’ve definitely heard that particularly amongst women, it can often go undiagnosed. Obviously, the only numbers you can look at are the numbers of people who’ve been diagnosed.

Obviously, again, something that has really been brought to the forefront recently is the concept of a spectrum. It’s not a condition where everyone has exactly the same experience, so yes, okay, cool.

The other thing I wanted to ask was, do you think they go together because I feel that if you have a condition like ASD that must impact your likelihood of having an anxiety disorder. Is that right or is it just uncorrelated?

Aya: In my experience, I surrounded myself with a lot of people who are on the spectrum. I can say that there is a not negligibly high number of people with a connection between the two. I haven’t really read the study, and I’m by no means an expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there was yes, a correlation between the two for sure.

Zoe: That, for me, in a positive way, means that if you can be supportive in one area, you’re going to help people in other areas as well.

Aya: Absolutely.

Zoe: Okay, cool. Let’s get to what can companies do, because I think that’s why a lot of people will be listening to podcasts, is that I think particularly in tech, there are a lot of leaders out there who really want to support their teams and they really want to have a set of employees in their team with diverse experiences and diverse perspectives, and so they want to support people. What are the best things that organisations can do?

Aya: I think the absolute most important thing is to ensure that you have an open environment with a comfortable platform to be able to talk about these things. For instance, my tech leads are very open to me discussing my needs with me.

I’m a person who thrives on routine, and as a result, they stick to that for me because they’ve given me this environment where I feel comfortable and happy talking about it, which isn’t always the case. It’s one thing to say, “Oh yes, of course, I’m happy to talk about it.” It’s another to make sure that the individual knows that if you need to talk about this, it’s very comfortable.

I think that’s a very important thing to do is cultivate an environment where being open about your needs doesn’t make an individual uncomfortable. That’s one thing I can say Softwire is very good at.

Zoe: Oh, thank you.

Aya: As well as that, it all goes hand in hand with that, but yes, just relatively maintaining an open mind to a degree of course, understanding that everyone is different. Web programmers, web developers, we live in a world of binary and ones and zeros, it’s true or false.

As we’ve mentioned, it’s very much a spectrum when it comes to mental health and other neuro diversities, and understanding that it is a spectrum and it’s not that they either are or they aren’t. You need to be adaptive in that regard, I guess, and keeping that in mind is very important, I think, as well.

Zoe: Where do you think the balance lies between, because we started talking about as an individual, what you can do – I can see the benefit of that. I can see that when each of us has the knowledge of ourselves more than anyone else in the world, that’s just how the setup is.

I’m also keen that it’s not just on individuals, because I think that there’s a huge amount of weight and stress in terms of saying, “Well, here’s our office. Here is our work environment. You sort yourself out so you can come and fit into it or tell us what needs to be done.” Where do you think that balance lies between individuals leading and organisations leading?

Aya: Speaking from my very minor experience, especially within Softwire’s policy, is very important, and having resources available, which of course on a more company-wide level is very useful. Company-wide resourcing and policy like that is very important, I think, and understanding that everyone’s singing from the same hymn sheet, I guess.

Zoe: I suppose that if an organisation has invested time and effort in materials, and making that available and making it known to people, it’s got to give you a certain amount of reassurance that they are interested and they do care, and they will listen if you come to them.

Aya: Yes, absolutely. Well, when a company has an internal page dedicated to how they look after the mental health of their employees, that’s a very good sign, so yes.

Zoe: They do that if you’re listening and you run a tech thing. On the other side, if anyone is listening and they’re finding they’re struggling with things and they want to learn more about different types of neurodiversity, so that they can look at ways that maybe they can help themselves. Have you got any recommendations for resources or places to start, or who they should go and talk to?

Aya: The absolute first thing I think anyone should do if they’re really struggling like that is talk to their GP. No one can help you more than a therapist. I understand that’s not always a resource available to everyone, but if it is, absolutely use it. There are lots of online community spaces for this stuff as well.

I would honestly say to look it up for your particular condition or neurodiversity and there’ll be a ton of resources out there for you on Google that you can look at, and communities you can get involved with, to help you cope with it.

There’ll be also plenty of reading material you can get from a GP or a doctor. I got a bunch of pamphlets on BPD when I got diagnosed, so those things are available to you there as well.

There’s just so much out there for so many different types of neurodiversity that it’s really hard to say it’s all in one generalised answer.

Zoe: Yes, it’s another label, isn’t it, where you could use it as a shortcut, but actually it can be very unhelpful because someone with ASD is going to be very different from someone with ADHD, for example, because it’s a totally different way. Obviously, some people will have both and they will have a different experience again.

Yes, I think that talking to a specialist, or your GP, which obviously is a generalist (that’s what the G stands for), but someone with medical experience who can say, “look in these areas,” and then finding groups online. Have you found that the fact we are so interconnected now, in terms of the internet, has that been a very useful resource for you?

Aya: Oh, absolutely. I downloaded a new app recently, and I’ve forgotten what it was called, but that is an app dedicated to finding neurodiverse individuals with the same neurodiversity as yourself.

Yes, I absolutely think that with us being so interconnected, with it being such an online world, it’s been very beneficial, especially for people who are struggling and or simply not willing to get a diagnosis for their own personal reasons, but have self-diagnosed, which I think is completely valid – even they can find advice, which you might struggle to do in a not-so-online world, so I think it’s been great.

Zoe: Oh, fantastic. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on to chat about this, because I think it takes a large amount of personal courage. I really respect you being able to share because I think it really helps other people in similar positions to also know that they’re not alone and that there is help out there and communities out there, and it’s possible – that everything is still possible if you get the right help and support, I think, particularly in the world of tech.

Aya: Understanding your own boundaries is a huge part of that as well. Never do anything that makes you uncomfortable and understand that you need to work within the confines of yourself, and once you learn what those are, it becomes a lot easier for sure.

Zoe: Well, thank you so much.

Thank you everyone for listening. Please do check out all of our other Softwire TechTalks on SoundCloud, Spotify, and all other podcast apps.

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