Some of the most common myths about developers involve social awkwardness, poor fashion sense, and a general image of their minds being a warren of circuitry and math. There are many people who will assure you that the mind of a developer is a scary place, fraught with obscure lingo, obscure pop culture references, random characters such as curly braces and parentheses, and an understanding of technology that surpasses that of mere mortals. However, one of the most pervasive myths about developers is that those who are neurodivergent are somehow more skilled and more suitable for the profession than others.
Myths are made to be disproven, and this particular myth is no exception. Topping the list of neurodivergencies that supposedly contribute to the skills of a developer are dyslexia, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). However, while each of these is a condition that affects the way that the brain processes data and does impact problem-solving, they are no gift to a developer.
Dyslexia is often characterized by difficulties with accurate word recognition, decoding, and spelling. Most people think of dyslexia as letters being flipped and reversed, or the brain jumbling the order of the letters of a word when it tries to process it. These are two variants of dyslexia, but are by no means the entirety of the condition. However, the dyslexic developer myth says that someone who has learned to overcome dyslexia and “function” is therefore able to be more focused and attentive to the small details. Theoretically, this would make them a better programmer.
However, just because you learn to function with dyslexia doesn’t mean you are cured. Your brain never stops misinterpreting words and numbers, you just learn to re-interpret the input you’re getting. Dyslexia is a life-long struggle with expressing yourself through writing clearly, interpreting the written languages around you, and embracing complex grammatical structures. Unfortunately for dyslexic developers, writing code is a form of written expression, involving complex syntax having to read and accurately interpret code written by others.
There are at least ten times as many myths about OCD as there are myths about obsessive-compulsive developers, and the vast majority of them in both categories are misconceptions. Obsession is a word that we use very casually in everyday conversation, devaluing the definition of the word. People discuss being obsessed with a show, a food, or pumpkin-spice lattes. Compulsion is something we generally only face when in school or the military. An activity or class will be compulsory.
Many people use OCD as an adjective when they intend to say that they are choosy or particular about how something is done, without understanding how distinct it is from a condition that causes you physical discomfort and anxiety when reality is not following an arbitrary pattern upon which your mind has become fixated. The myth that developers with OCD have to have things just a certain way, orderly and methodically building their code, is completely false. Even if the process of coding is the pattern with which someone with OCD has become fixated, they are still just as likely to suffer anxiety when something isn’t correct. Having OCD doesn’t make you a good coder; it makes you an anxious one.
Anyone who has seen Rain Man has a certain impression of ASD, more commonly known as autism. Autistic people, the myth says, are automatically good at math, bad at dressing themselves, and don’t know the value of money. Many would agree that this is the very definition of a developer, however they are discounting the mental chaos and dysfunction that comes from being somewhere on the autism spectrum. Recent scientific progress has spurred a reclassification of the condition as a spectrum of disorders, including Asperger’s (although that is no longer an officially-recognized term) and savantism.
The misconception focuses on how all those who suffer with autism demonstrate savantism, or abnormally proficient skill in one area or another. Many have seen a movie of the week profiling people such as Leslie Lemke, Kim Peek, Stephen Wiltshire, or Daniel Tammet. Therefore, it is an easy (though illogical) leap to go from those cases of autism to a developer with ASD being expected to code at an abnormally proficient level. As the core areas affected by autism include the ability to express yourself and the ability solve problems, this makes the process of coding particularly challenging. Even with famous savants like Lemke and Wiltshire, they are only able to reproduce things they hear or see. Coding requires you to be able to innovate and invent.
Overall, the myths surrounding these conditions being a benefit to developers are more detrimental than anything else. It puts an unfair pressure on these developers to perform at an impossible standard, and only adds to their anxiety when this arbitrary excellence isn’t achieved to someone’s Hollywood-fuelled expectations. A good developer is someone who studies, practices, and devotes themselves to building their skills. That is a set of characteristics that is independent of any other condition, and ultimately common to any profession. Good developers are good because they work hard, not because they are neurodivergent.
Companies such as Microsoft have even put specific hiring programs in place to capitalize on this mentality. It is a documented initiative across the world of technology. And while supporting those whose neurodivergencies is something I can only encourage, I discourage the idea that just because a developer is neurodivergent that they are therefore going to outperform someone neurotypical.
Now before anyone wants to get really angry at me for this viewpoint, I would like to point out that I am a neurodivergent developer myself. This is something with which I have lived since I was 14 and it started to impact my life. My acronyms are my own, but they are there and definitely impact my ability to perform at an acceptable level, sometimes. I have developed coping strategies that have allowed me to succeed and even excel, but it has required extra effort.