The Crash Of The High Masking Autistic Software Engineer
I came, I soared, I burnt out... but I'm rising again.
When you think of autism, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of someone with exceptional talent? Do you think of Einstein? Or maybe you think of TV shows like ‘The Good Doctor’ which is not a great representation of autism by the way.
For myself, I always saw autism as something really cool. I read stories about autistic people who had the most amazing talents and can draw skylines from memory or play any piece of music on the piano that you tell them to play. Although I heard amazing stories about other autistic people around the world, I was unaware of the downsides of it; that was until I started a notice a change in myself which led to my being diagnosed with autism (Level 1).
I masked so close to the Sun…
You may have heard of ‘masking’ or you have not. Masking is when someone with autism might consciously or unconsciously manage and alter their behavior to fit in or appear 'neurotypical'. This can include mimicking social interactions, suppressing natural behaviors, or learning specific responses to blend into social situations. An example of this could be someone forcing themselves to make eye contact which many autistic people find uncomfortable including myself. It’s not exclusive to autistic people but masking can be emotionally and mentally draining and can lead to feelings of isolation or anxiety.
When I entered the tech industry in 2019, never did I imagine my career journey to be as it was. I never imagined that speaking the truth about my experiences in the tech industry would inspire so many. I definitely never imagined that it would lead me to areas of advocacy but it did! I spoke on stages from Bloomberg to Hackajob, I flew to other countries, I won awards, I was accepted as a Delegate for the United Nations Commission of the Status of Women and I was invited to sit on a Board of a charity. It was non-stop for five years all while continuing to learn & develop my technical skills as an Engineer, creating content & so much more. I went with the flow until the cracks started to show, and even then, I pushed through.
I found joy in inspiring people. It made me feel so warm meeting people who joined the tech industry or learned how to code because I shared my story. After some events, I would get home & immediately crash. When I say crash, I don’t sleep. I mean that I would shut down emotionally. I wouldn’t speak for what felt like days. I had to muster the energy to respond to more speaking opportunities that were sitting in my inbox but I couldn’t do it. I can’t even tell you how many opportunities I missed out because of it. My brain would be screaming “Reply to them!” and my body wouldn’t let me. It was happening more and more often.
In early 2020, I had some sort of panic attack while on a Zoom call with my team at my previous job as a Big Data Engineer. I was stimming heavily, rocking side to side & started to cry but as I was leading the call, I had the camera off & continued talking as if nothing was wrong. In case you’re wondering what stimming is, stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior which is used as a coping mechanism. It presents differently for different people. For example, rocking side-to-side is one of the behaviors I do but for others, it could be hand-flapping or flicking your fingers.
Anyway, going back to the story, I was told that I was showing signs of extreme anxiety back then. However, in February of this year, I discovered that that was autism. It explained so much at that point but it gave me the answers I needed to really understand more about myself.
The Layoff: A Blessing In Disguise…
After two years of being a DevOps Engineer at Dropbox, I was laid off in April along with 500 other people across the company. It was devastating, it was stressful & it threw me however, for many reasons that I’m not sure I want to delve into, for months, I had a feeling it would happen.
I threw myself into finding a job because everyone else was. I followed the panic but physically & mentally, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. My brain was telling me to stop, to pause & to rest. After masking for so long, I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to stop so I did & gave myself permission to simply do nothing. I gave myself permission to come back to myself, to unmask all of the behaviors I’d mirrored over this tech journey ride & understand my neurodivergent brain as it is now. As difficult as the layoff was, it was a blessing in disguise for me because I’d finally stopped & acknowledged I was experiencing autistic burnout.
Autistic burnout is a term used within the autistic community to describe a state of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion caused by the cumulative effect of coping with the stresses of living in a world that's often not accommodating to their needs such as masking. The signs of autistic burnout can be unique between autistic people but some of the symptoms include a loss of skills (regression in social, communication, or daily living skills), a decreased tolerance to change or stress, and/or severe fatigue and exhaustion.
I Have My Answers. Now What?
I love being in the tech industry, I couldn’t see myself working anywhere else. It’s creative. It’s exciting but it is difficult regardless. I’m enjoying learning about things that interest me & align with my special interests so that I can prepare for the next chapter of my tech career. I’m hoping to go back to working with Big Data again. I enjoyed many areas of my time as a Big Data Engineer & I’m excited to go back to that.
Being in an industry where you are constantly learning about new technologies is exciting, it’s interesting but it can be also draining for many. I struggled to keep up & rightfully so! I was pushing through autistic burnout! That would exhaust any autistic brain but with therapy, access to a clinical psychologist & connecting with other autistic people in the neurodivergent community, it has allowed me to learn more about myself & embrace more of myself as an autistic woman.
Mental health & neurodiversity is so important. It’s important to have these conversations but it’s also important to know that there’s a spectrum to all of this. As a late-diagnosed autistic woman with ADHD, dyslexia & dyspraxia, talking about being neurodivergent & my mental health is something that means a lot to me for a multitude of reasons. The main reason is that people need to see & hear the voices of neurodivergent people especially those from marginalised groups like myself; a Black, queer woman.
My life changed the moment I got my autism diagnosis. It was, as if, multiple veils were lifted & I had to get to know myself again. I’m in a season of learning about many areas of myself & validating areas of myself that I knew were different.
It’s quite the journey but better for it to be 32 years late than never.