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Removing the Mask: How Neurodiversity Strengthens Cybersecurity

Nothing about us without us.

If we’re going to talk about neurodiversity (ND) – or any marginalized group – we must start there. Even well-meaning initiatives without direct primary involvement of the group in question often fail due to the unknown unknowns: the hangups and landmines and invisible walls that aren’t visible unless experienced directly. So in discussing the experience of being neurodiverse in the technology space in general and security space in particular, we begin at this pillar to build a human, nuanced understanding.

Yet even here a complication immediately appears: due to its very definition, being neurodiverse is not necessarily a shared set of circumstances. Each person’s experience of neurodiversity will be different, and no person or group, even composed of the neurodiverse, can speak for all those circumstances. But the path forward as we see it lies in education, as well as community, destigmatization, and intersectional solidarity. In that spirit, your authors seek to share their own personal experiences of being neurodiverse in tech, and hopefully share something useful. 

In November, a previous blog post laid out some neurodiversity basics and then talked about the theory and practice behind establishing an ND Employee Resource Group. While many definitions float around, we outlined neurodiversity as “essentially the idea that people perceive, experience, and operate in the world in different psychological and neurological ways, and that those differences are not inherently deficits or disabilities. Explicit is the recognition that the larger world is constructed for neurotypical groups – people who fall closer to the norm in the ways they sense and process – and it’s the social construction along those lines that causes more problems than our actual differences.” Also explicit is that medical diagnoses are not required to self-determine as neurodivergent; in fact, there are many stories of ND people not being listened to by medical establishments, and learning distrust instead. If you think you’re neurodivergent, that’s enough.

We seek to operate with the most inclusive form of neurodivergence possible. The more voices we have, the better we are. But there are also times that the collective concept erodes particular details and everything turns out fuzzy and indistinct. It is, in some cases, less helpful, less instructive, and so in this blog post we strive to present several individual points of view to make it more personal. Because to us, it is – intimately personal. This is how we live, and how we work; how we vibrate with joy, and melt down with overwhelm. 

Why bother with all this neurodiversity stuff, though? What’s the benefit? What are we getting by including neurodivergents more deeply in the cybersecurity field?

For one, we’re already here, and very much so. And we’ve got some incredible talents to offer, and specific benefits like hyperfocus, superior pattern-matching, superior rules-alignment, and more. 

But beyond that, it’s worth considering the criticality of our collective task in this industry. RAND recently released a great report on Neurodiversity in National Security that is well worth taking time to read, much of it transferring well to cybersecurity. In it, they talked about benefits of ND workers and barriers to hiring and advancement, but they underscored a single point more clearly than any other: “missions that are too important and too difficult to be left to those who use their brains only in typical ways.”

The missions are too important to attempt without us. 

This may well be your colleague in the next cubicle over; or it may be you. It may be your direct report, or your boss, or your troubled son or thriving daughter. 

Welcome.

Why Am I Reacting This Way? – Ian’s Story

Being different was nothing new for me. Childhood dyslexia and a stutter along with early onset depression and anxiety informed my nearly forty years up to 2020. But that year provided some stark moments in isolation that proved informative. Shortly into the pandemic I found myself in my San Mateo apartment full of rage, unable to concentrate, and shaking uncontrollably. 

In a crowded neighborhood, one neighbor worked out by picking up very heavy things, shouting, and throwing them down hard enough to shake my apartment. Lockdown pressures had him venting like this two to three times a day for an hour at a time. The second neighbor whose property backed up to my apartment windows took up an entirely new hobby during lockdown – chainsaw wood sculpting, I kid you not. He ripped and roared into logs for hours at a time.

And I found myself paralyzed, trembling, even rocking a bit, and wondering: This sucks, but I shouldn’t be this bad. Why the hell am I reacting like this?

I’ve spent a lifetime playing with my senses in one way or another – multiple audio inputs, glasses with colored lenses, and more. Synesthesia made my sensory experience all the more vibrant at times, but also overwhelming. At least, I thought the overwhelm came from synesthesia. But looking back a pattern emerged that seemed significant – in fact, seemed consistent with some of the literature I had encountered about autism. So I began engaging with my doctor, and then additional resources, seeking to understand myself better, and a conclusion emerged: at nearly forty years old I received a diagnosis of autism and, along with it, sensory processing disorder.

Technology historian and author George Dyson gave a talk once in which he spoke of our digital world and information economy in the context of canoe builders. He identified two primary types of canoe builders:

  1. There’s not much wood around where they live, so they use a wood frame and wrap it with animal skin.
  2. There’s so much wood around that you make a canoe by removing wood (a dugout canoe).

Dyson continued that it’s the same with information. These days, we build our understanding of the world by removing, because there is so much information. 

I want you to understand my primary experience of autism is one of building by digging out. So much information, so much noise, so much stimuli presents itself all at once. To create a coherent picture of what’s going on in any present moment is an act of digging out, digging out, digging out. Processing does not stop because the information does not stop. And the fatigue from just this alone is often debilitating. 

If you read the previous blog post, you read about Jenara Nerenberg’s book Divergent Mind, and Elaine Aron’s research into Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) and the ND overlap , and that “what is moderately arousing for most people is highly arousing for HSPs.” Related brain imaging research shows that HSPs process stimuli more elaborately, with some brain regions more active during sensory processing and integration. 

Highly Sensitive Persons also have a longer “pause to check” time – they “respond to new information by taking time to scan for nuanced details…” No wonder that I sometimes seem disconnected from people or lost to the moment, busy processing and scanning because my brain is taking some extra steps. That can put some people off. It can also make me very, very good at certain jobs. But of course the social stigma is there – the self-consciousness that I take just a little too long, scan just a little too hard, and thus don’t respond in ways people often expect.

My flavor of neurodivergence is not just a thunderous chorus of stimuli processing, but processing at depth, integrating with a rich and complex inner life that’s not always easy to relate off the cuff. 

And along with that comes years of learned shame for being different in all sorts of ways, from my beloved fifth grade teacher regularly dumping my desk in front of the class to poor social outcomes teaching me that I was too much in some ways, not enough in others, and needed to chisel out particular masks to move among peers and others. 

Masking is an incredibly hot topic among the autistic community (as well as the larger neurodiverse one). Essentially, masking is suppressing your own natural processes and responses from the world in an attempt to better accommodate the world and find a more accepted place within it. It can be conscious or unconscious, the result of strategy or a programmed behavior; it can be something as physical as learning to control a body or facial tick, or nonverbal body language, or stomping down your own desires, such as the desire to talk about a special interest, or the desire to silently participate in a conversation with your presence instead of speech. Masking comes from a fundamental inability of the typical-built world to allow for neurodivergence, and there is tragedy in that. 

But there can also be a certain kind of personal agency. Learning more about yourself and your habits and your responses, and how to control them, you can choose when to mask and when not to. As you grow, you can become aware of how to carve your masks in different ways and how to change them in and out, and you learn there’s power in being able to determine who you are and how you’ll respond in any given situation.

Another thing to really understand about masking, for the purpose of this post, is that masking is very very exhausting. On top of the never-ending incoming stimuli, having to mask in order to not be rejected quickly leads to burnout. With less energy to regulate stimuli processing, meltdown can quickly follow.

Across neurodiverse populations, the fear of social rejection is strong and always looming. Comorbid with many neurodiversities is the condition Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), which should be on the radar of anyone interested in neurodiversity topics. RSD manifests as an oversized reaction – either inward or outward – to perceived failure or rejection. Other people may consider those with RSD as over-perfectionists, over-dramatic, or over-sensitive, but for our purposes it’s worth being clear about two overlapping mechanisms here:

  1. In one sense, Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria is theorized as an inability to regulate rejection-related feelings and overlaps with many other ND conditions that involve regulatory issues (such as sensory processing, in my case).
  1. In another sense, rejection sensitivity can be easily theorized as a learned response to repeated traumas from being stigmatized and rejected due to neurodivergence.

Two for one! Great, huh? Bear in mind as well that social rejection also causes physical pain, and you will better understand some of the multiple sensory feedback loops between emotional dysregulation and sensory overwhelm. 

In retrospect, starting my tech career in IT support was probably the hard choice. For quite a bit of time my only interaction with most co-workers involved something I was responsible for being broken. It was crushing. System and software failures led me to take things personally enough that my (excellent) boss at the time pulled me into a meeting. He acknowledged my frustration on multiple levels but also patiently explained that co-workers reporting what I felt were trivial or unreasonable IT issues weren’t doing it as a reflection on me or my work, but saw themselves as doing it helpfully, to identify issues that we’d want to know about.

Honestly? I had not considered that. And having that perspective pointed out allowed me to, slowly and painfully but progressively, adjust to a much healthier approach to work, reputation, and my place in the company. I needed that reality check, but it was done in a quiet manner by someone who put forth effort to make me feel safe and respected.

Managers that take the time to understand and applaud neurodiversity and work with problems can gain untold benefits – in this case, I thrived and developed from a level one or two support tech to a fully-fledged IT engineer, and then security operations engineer. I went from fixing Outlook profiles to rolling out entire new mail clusters and other internal software. And then moved into what I wanted for so long: security itself. Having the benefit of two consecutive bosses that are engaged, understanding, and open to non-standard ways of thinking and working helped shape me into a much more tangible benefit for them as well.

Superpower or Disability – Travis’ Story

One of the most interesting things about being neurodiverse is that the exact same features of my particular brand of neurodiversity make me exceptional, in both positive and negative directions. I was gifted and cursed with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), anxiety, and depression, and developed post traumatic stress disorder along the way. Each of these has caused challenges, but has also granted capability. Individually and collectively, these ‘disorders’ overlaid each other in a way that I was able to create a net I have used to climb to where I need to be. That is not to say that someone else with a similar blend of neurospice would gain similar results; luck and privilege definitely played their parts, but viewing these as traits and looking for advantage in them has helped while it hindered.

In my early professional career, I was deeply impacted in a negative way. When a contract ends and you’re told “you’re really great at what you do, and if we had a position that we just didn’t have to have you interact with anyone, we know you would really shine,” it stings a little. When, at the very next gig, they move you from an on-site role to being the only person consistently in the office, working on anything that can be handled remotely, it reinforces the lesson. But I was determined to be successful in this career, so when I was passed over for a promotion I legitimately felt entitled to, I went to my new technical lead and bluntly asked why he had been promoted instead of me, and he responded, while laughing, “because you were willing to ask that question!”

I didn’t know at the time that I was neurodivergent. Not in the way I now understand it. I knew I had ADHD and depression, but those were things to ignore or medicate away. Weaknesses, flaws, things to overcome. Looking back, I recognize that I truly felt the social part of any job was a waste of time and effort, that by focusing on technical skill and ability, I would get ahead. That technical lead could have easily had me go back to work as I had been, and if it were me, I would have. 

But he used the people skills I ignored, and helped me understand the social interactions, the way that they interrelated with customers and coworkers and managers. How rapport turned to trust, which led to opportunities, which led to success. He spent well over a year truly coaching me, and when I moved on to my next role and the role after that, it was his lessons that helped me find success. What neither of us realized was that he was teaching me that it was important to mask.

Masking is a way of hiding your neurodivergence to interact with others in the way that they expect you to, and frankly it can be exhausting. Learning how and when to do it to be successful, I think, is one of the keys to fitting in with a primarily neurotypical workforce. But there are times and spaces here at DomainTools, where I’m around people I have already established trust with, built a team with, where I can take off the mask and be my weird, exceptional self, and occasionally it allows us to take a leap forward. What had been a disability, had cost me a job early in my career, had prevented me from promotions and bonuses, became a key to my success. Part of that was in figuring out when and how to reveal and rely on it, but a much larger part was in the manager and organization that listened, supported, and gave space to enable that success.

In later discussion with the manager, it was an accidental discovery that really led to this unique workflow. When he was visiting one of our data centers, he found a printed page left in the rack by someone I had sent in to do some hands-on work to resolve an emergency: the CEO and founder of Farsight Security, Paul Vixie. To me, the choice had been obvious at the time; Paul lived about an hour from the data center, had somewhat recently returned from a business trip, he was familiar with technology, he knew the location since he had founded Palo Alto Internet Exchange (PAIX), and customers were experiencing an outage; so I wrote a clear and concise set of instructions on what to do to end the outage, called Paul and sent the email. Paul printed the instructions, carried out the tasks, ended the outage, and left the print out in the cage where my new manager who had been with the company for about a month, but had worked for Paul for years before at a previous venture, found it a year or so later. He called me from the datacenter to ask about it, and I responded “Oh yeah! I forgot about that. There was an outage, and he was the only one close enough with technical experience.” He understood that my quirks had led to a faster resolution of the problem the customers were experiencing, and decided we could utilize that going forward; and we have.

That lack of social awareness that is a hallmark of autism has caused me to struggle and to succeed. It’s been both superpower and disability, depending on the situation, environment, and most importantly the people around me. To those who are neurodiverse, I advise you to work with those features, and find ways they can benefit you and those around you. To those working with neurodiverse folks, I strongly recommend that you utilize that diversity of insight and methodology to find more successful solutions and strategies for advancement. The “interesting” way may not be the right one, but it often helps highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the path you do eventually take.

Benefits of Developing Neurodiverse Employees

With the above experiences in mind, we now turn to neurodivergent advantages more generally. The aforementioned RAND report clearly lays out finding after finding from their informed interviews, including:

  • Research showing autistic people perform better on pattern-matching amidst noise, pattern construction, repetitive tasks with nuanced details, and many nonverbal assessments.
  • Accounting firm Ernst & Young vastly expanded its neurodiversity programs after finding the detail-oriented work of ND employees to be exemplary.
  • Software firm SAP noted teams including autistic individuals were responsible for “a rise in patent applications and innovation in products.”
  • The rules-oriented nature of national security work stands as a natural fit for many flavors of autism, providing an intrinsic boost to compliance and operational security.

In our experience, benefits also include:

  • Problem-solving from unique perspectives and both typical and unorthodox solution-finding as a matter of course.
  • Determination to not just fix but understand problems to their root cause.
  • The ability to hyperfocus on critical tasks in order to give them the attention they deserve and accomplish them in less time than a typical worker (but it should be noted that hyperfocus often needs to be followed by recovery time). 

It’s this last benefit we turn to before moving on. In her book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman provides deep insight into the cognitive and social processes behind the rise of the free/open source software movement and related hacking concepts. As she talks about hackers amidst hyperfocus and a kind of flow state, and similar fixated and determined joy, Coleman writes “In its mild and commonplace form, hacker pleasure could be said to approximate the Aristotelian theory of eudaimonia, defined succinctly by philosopher Martha Nussbaum as “the unimpeded performance of the activities that constitute happiness.” The neurodiverse among us will recognize the sheer one-track minded thrill that comes from engaging with a deep and complex problem and letting all else fall away.

For our neurodiverse peers, find a place that helps you access that joy and exhilaration. For others in the industry, find neurodiverse candidates able to hit that state and keep running with a problem until it’s coded or hacked or engineered into completion.

You won’t regret it.

Advice for the Neurodiverse 

  • When you’re frustrated, step back. Ian has this on a post-it note stuck to his monitor – too many times, frustration causes misalignment and miscommunication. Stepping back and taking a breath can adjust the entire tempo of an incident or encounter for the better.
  • Pay attention to your immediate environment, both in the physical and sensory departments. Pay attention to your comfort as well as your input and processing, and when you approach feelings of overwhelm try to work with them and see where they originate and how they can be mitigated.
  • Learn more about yourself, how you respond, and how you can take control of that. You shouldn’t need to mask, but there is power and agency in learning how to reclaim executive function and methods of self-regulation. Reading, research, meditation, psychotherapy, and specialized occupational therapy can all contribute here.
  • See everything you do as part of a budget. You only have so much time and energy, just like you only have so much money; so each act or task or project that depletes that should be part of the same budgeting process.
  • Relay to those around you resources that feel true to your experience as an act of expectation management. In many cases it’s not ability that’s in deficit, but regulation. Help people understand ahead of time if you’re comfortable doing so.
  • Find the others. Seek other neurodiverse people to ally with even if it’s just once a quarter over coffee – it doesn’t need to be something as formal as an Employee Resource Group (ERG), though it can be. You’re not alone and don’t need to walk alone.

Advice for Managers and Colleagues – including some points from DomainTools’ awesome Neurodivergent Employee Resource Group

  • Each experience of neurodivergence is unique and no one premise or suggestion or experience will be common to all neurodiverse people.
  • Work hard on communicating clearly and concisely. Avoid starting out instant messages with just general greetings or requests to talk, but include what you’d like to talk about. That will reduce worries and other friction caused by an ND employee having to make assumptions or engage with worry and discomfort.
  • Work hard to extend trust. Neurodiverse people learn early not to trust others, and that others won’t trust us. Try to bridge that gap and you can earn deep loyalty. 
  • Understand that ND workers are incredibly talented and productive, but productivity can look different with us. Output can be very variable, but that doesn’t mean we’re unreliable.
  • Understand ND workers may be motivated by different things than neurotypical workers, and strive to learn what it is for each person.
  • Encourage ND workers to develop their own structure under which to work. Structure can help ND people thrive, but it must be a product of agency or self-determination, not imposed from without.
  • Invitations – whether social or work meetings – should be explicit and inclusive. Make clear you’re inviting the person, not just saying “We’re headed to the movies!” That doesn’t feel like an invitation to many neurodiverse folk.
  • Communications styles differ and sometimes, especially but not only in text, wires can get crossed. We should presume positive intent of each other and ask questions rather than escalate. 
  • Just because something wasn’t done doesn’t mean we didn’t care or it’s not a priority. Circumstances can intervene. Again, try to presume good intent and question your own assumptions before engaging about it. 

Our experience of being neurodiverse in technology is one of both vulnerability and strength, an ongoing journey of overwhelming fatigue and incredible skill. We’re here because we’re good at what we do, and what we do is critical to keeping people safe. We’re here because we’ve had great support from family, friends, and coworkers, and because we’ve persevered through repeated traumas from them too. You may not know who around you is one of us, but take the time to learn and we can contribute far beyond your expectations.