Autistic Programmers: Autism in Software Development

There are a lot of stereotypes regarding autistic programmers and the prevalence of autism in the industry is often overstated in pop culture. Shows like Mr. Robot popularised the lone hacker who is on the spectrum while The Big Bang theory brought autistic tendencies into the spotlight. 

In reality, only 3.7% of programmers have autism or an autism spectrum disorder like Aspergers. However, autism has a global prevalence of 1% which means software developers are nearly four times more likely to have autism than the general population. So the stereotypes are overstated but there is some truth to the observation. 

With such a small minority of programmers being autistic it is likely that most software engineers have never even worked with someone on the spectrum. Many who report that programmers are rude could be unaware of a colleague having autism. It’s important to work closely with your team and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look at the number of autistic software engineers and why people on the spectrum may benefit from a career in programming. 

Are most computer programmers autistic?

two software developers

Most computer programmers are not autistic, only 3.7% of developers report having Autism or an Autism spectrum disorder. Only 1% of the general population report having Autism which means it is nearly four times more prevalent in software developers. The higher autism rate among programmers could be why some people believe they can be difficult to work with. 

Pop culture has helped proliferate the view that a lot of tech-focused people sit somewhere on the spectrum. From Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang to Elliot in Mr. Robot, shows with Autistic protagonists have become incredibly widespread. 

Overall it’s great because it represents the diverse nature of the workplace and breaks down barriers for those on the spectrum. People are a lot less judgmental with things they are familiar with so having representation in TV and movies is important. 

It does mean that a lot of people in tech are painted with the same brush. Not everyone who codes is a genius with a high IQ or has poor social skills. On the contrary, software engineers come in all shapes and sizes, with some being exceptionally extroverted. It can often be a big misconception many have about the tech industry. I know plenty of product and sales-focused people that are always surprised by how social developers are.

Why are autistic people good at programming?

Autistic people tend to be good at programming because it is logical, predictable, literal, and visual in nature. Not everyone with Autism has a talent for programming but a lot do. It suits many of their strengths and allows them to flourish. 

Some software development roles are perfect for those lacking in social skills. Programming has long been a haven for those who want a task-focused job where frequent interaction with others isn’t necessary. 

It is important to caveat the above statement. The day-to-day of a programmer is different at every company. The majority of software engineering roles now require you to be a good team player and have solid communication skills. However, there are still plenty of old-school roles where all you need to do is focus purely on writing code and not much else. It varies from industry to industry.  It’s worth pointing out that the unsocial, poor-mannered stereotype is rare in most modern offices. Companies have specific guidelines and treating your colleagues poorly isn’t likely to end well. 

The main reasons why autistic people are good at programming include: 

  1. Logic – A lot of students with autism flourish in logic-driven subjects like Maths. Their thought process is incredibly logical and translates well to software development. The job is all about breaking down problems and solving them which requires a good deal of logical thought. Things like updating databases also require precision and repetition which go hand in hand with logic.
  2. Predictable – Writing code offers predictable outcomes which is something that allows autistic individuals to perform well. They have a high degree of control over their interactions with a computer and outputs are well defined. It allows them to be organized and have a good idea of outcomes before they start a task.
  3. Visual – Software engineering is visual. You spend a lot of your time having to interpret and read code. The visual nature of programming works well for autistic individuals and also for them to excel over their non-autistic counterparts. 
  4. Literal – Computer and software are understood literally. Even functions that abstract out behavior are still literal in the way they are composed. Your function outputs precisely what you tell it to based on the inputs. The lack of ambiguity and precise nature of coding means autistic individuals can excel at it.  

Not all autistic people are destined to be outstanding programmers. The nature of a spectrum disorder and general individual differences mean that some people just won’t enjoy it. 

However, a lot of the work programmers do fits nicely with the strengths of those with ASD. Therefore it’s understandable that a higher percentage of software engineers have autism. 

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