I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when I was 13 years old. Today, I am a developer on the Microsoft stack. I founded my own nonprofit, DDSoft in Belgium where I make software, experiment with prototypes of accessible apps and software systems. In August 2019, I became a Microsoft MVP. At that point I was so happy, and I am still so grateful to be included in this MVP community.
The original title of this talk was: “My own life as a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Tech? It’s about a good wine!”. Well first of all, I want to be inclusive and not everybody drinks wine. But I believe most of you know that wine gets better with age. The older the wine, the better the wine. That said, I am not a wine expert but you get the analogy. A common misconception about people with autism is that they can’t use figurative sentences. Clearly, that's not true. Everybody is unique - yes, even those living with ASD. People are unique and if you talk about people with ASD there’s no “one size fits all” solution. Some figurative jokes work, some don't. The same is for all the other parts in this blog post. This is my story. Some people with ASD will recognize themselves, yet some will completely disagree, and that’s fine. Our lived experiences are all unique.
In my early years, I wasn’t that happy. When I was 16, I wanted to become a programmer – in that time I didn’t use the word "developer" - nobody believed that I could become one. That I was intelligent enough and that it was possible. In my school one teacher even told me, “You should play games in the evening instead of trying to learn to program”. But I didn’t listen. I found games boring. I wanted to create something myself. However, because the standard of math was too low in the school I studied, high school and college were not possible for me. I ended up with some jobs that I hated. I crashed. Well, everything happens for a reason.
In 2012, I got the opportunity to start as a volunteer in a coaching center for people with (learning) disabilities called Ithaka. I got the offer to become their in-house volunteer developer. I didn’t know the world of people with learning disabilities, but I took on the challenge anyway. (By the way, it has been 8 years since I started volunteering in Ithaka's coaching center!). Subsequently, I founded my own nonprofit to help even more people. In my nonprofit called DDSoft, I work on the Microsoft stack. Let’s call it ‘real coding’.
In 2017 the real stuff happened. I spoke for the first time in my life at NDC Sydney (as I said I am from Belgium thus Sydney, Australia is the other side of the world). I flew there on my own. Two years later I became a Microsoft MVP.
I organize my life as a person living with ASD through using Windows 10 and Microsoft 365. This combination is pure magic and empowering for me. To demonstrate how it works for me, I am going to tell you how I plan a day in my life.
I start by waking up and drinking coffee. I open my Mailbox on my phone. Thanks to Microsoft, Outlook is available on all smartphones. It doesn’t matter If you have an iPhone or an Android phone - Outlook works on both. I check my emails and my calendar. That same calendar is connected on all my devices. I eat a light breakfast and refresh myself. I login to my Windows 10 notebook and yes, I open Outlook again! After some time answering some important emails, I check Facebook, Twitter and Messenger. I start with the first “work block”.
What are these "work blocks", you ask? For me, an agenda / schedule with fixed blocks really helps me focus. I don’t plan complete day schedules - instead, I use these blocks that I invest time in something. This can be some work for the community, work for my nonprofit, a family event, or cleaning my apartment.
If I'm doing some computer work, I use concentration in mode in Windows 10. I also put my phone in Do Not Disturb mode so I have focus time. After my work block is over, I take a (social media and movement/stretching) break. Then I check back in my O365 agenda on when and what’s my next block. If I'm traveling to conferences, Microsoft 365 helps me keep track of my route, navigation and conference schedule.
So I am a .NET developer, and I love Visual Studio - the tool that helps me focus on projects that I love to build. Most of my code is hosted in the cloud (Azure DevOps). I've also started moving some code to GitHub. I didn’t use GitHub before, but I started using it after Microsoft acquired the company. I am not an OSS (Open Source Software) hero (yet!). I link my struggle to contribute to OSS with my Autism Spectrum Disorder. I don’t feel comfortable with code reviews and everyone seeing the way that I code. I needed a long time to change my variable names to English. In the past, I always used my own native language Dutch for everything that’s not part of the programming language syntax. Some examples: variable names, variable content, comments. A reason that I experience difficulties in letting this go is that I make accessible apps for people in the Dutch speaking part in Belgium. I admit it’s a stupid excuse - I definitely can name variables in English and even link content to resource files and do all the “Dutch stuff” in resource files. The good thing is I started changing this attitude since a few months.
I also need more time to change coding style to the latest and greatest features of each C# release. I can say: “I write C# 3.5 with the latest C# release”. I started with C# 3.5 and still stick to some concepts. And maybe I still do some things as in VB6 too. Each conference I visit, I make it a point to attend talks about the latest and greatest C#, but implementing those features is hard for me.
The layout of the IDE is also important. Most of the time I still love the view of the first view of a IDE I used for this typical task. Maybe it’s something difficult to explain. So, hot and brand new UI changes and even dialog changes are quite hard for me. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary for Microsoft changes dialogs and other UI parts. I make exceptions, like for Visual Studio Code. The basic view is a Dark Theme, but I don’t love dark backgrounds, so I changed to light backgrounds since it was available for VS Code.
Technology really helps me as a person with autism. For example, during this time of COVID-19, Microsoft Teams helps me communicate with my loved ones. You have phone calls, but you can’t compare a 1-1 telephone call with a virtual party with different people. We have to be grateful for what’s possible thanks to technology. I don’t take this for granted. If this situation happened 10 years ago, things would be much worse.
Microsoft Edge, the newest Microsoft browser, really empowers me too. I use “Collections” a lot. Collections makes so much more sense for me than just favorites that were used in the past. Edge Collections really helps me keep track of projects that I am elaborating on.
And to be sure, third-parties also have mobile apps that I use a lot. I can’t imagine life without an app for Public Transport anymore. So addicted to these apps - they truly help and enable me personally.
I also want to take some time in this post to thank the Microsoft Community in a broader sense. I am so blessed that Microsoft recognized my contributions to the community and recognized me as an MVP. Maybe it’s a bit ‘silly’ or ‘not-so-obvious’ to say, but a lot of people have a ‘normal-paid-job’. This is still the standard nearly everywhere in the world. Personally I don’t use the word job only for ‘normal-paid-jobs’, if you spend time in a job, it shouldn’t matter if it's paid or on a volunteer basis. This is the reason that I quote the normal sense of a job. Even for people on the autism spectrum, there is too much speculation about the level of achieving a paid job. When I got awarded for the first time as an MVP, I had the feeling that I really belong to something, like I finally proved my case. But to me, I was not trying to prove anything - I am just sharing straight from my heart. To be honest, the recognition is more than gold for me.
Last year – 2019 – I achieved my life dream of visiting the United States. I also got to visit Microsoft HQ. I even got the opportunity to speak on the Humans of IT track at Microsoft Ignite. This is a blessing, and it's all thanks to everyone that recognized my knowledge and gave me opportunities.
To wrap up this post, I hope I gave you a unique insight in my world as a person living with autism. I would love to reiterate that everyone on the spectrum is different, and it’s perfectly possible that you might not recognize yourself in this post if you are also on the spectrum. I want to say a word of gratitude to some people that supported me on my wine-brewing-journey - My own "wine of life", if you will. I want to thank my parents Ivette Marchand and Johan Declercq. They always believed me, even when not everything has worked out well in my life. Thanks to Liesbet, Griet and Geert from Ithaka coaching center. Thanks to Jakob and Charlot (and everyone on the agenda committee of NDC Sydney 2017) for giving me the chance of my life inviting me as somebody completely unknown on the other side of the world. Thanks to Shona, Laurent, Mads, Tina and many more people from Microsoft for seeing and recognizing my insights. And last but definitely not least the amazing Microsoft community that has helped shaped my own journey in this wonderful community. Love you all!
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