Monday 19 August 2019

'ADHD didn't stop me from being a programmer'

Rachel Clancy was 26 when she was diagnosed with ADHD. Now a year later, the successful software developer is aiming to launch an app to teach young people about the condition, writes Gabija Gataveckaite

Game changer: Rachel Clancy was diagnosed with ADHD a year ago. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg
Game changer: Rachel Clancy was diagnosed with ADHD a year ago. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg
Rachel Clancy pictured at Goldsmiths University. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

Software developer Rachel Clancy was 26 years old when she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

In school, her teachers complained that she scribbled on her notebooks and struggled to remain focused.

"I was a daydreamer, I assumed I was lazy and undisciplined, assumed it was a character trait," she remembers.

She explains that ADHD can be misdiagnosed in girls as it presents itself as day dreaminess, whereas boys with ADHD can be more hyperactive and, hence, easier to diagnose.

Rachel Clancy pictured at Goldsmiths University. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg
Rachel Clancy pictured at Goldsmiths University. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

"People with ADHD are perceived as more emotional as the brain works very fast," she says.

"But rejection would affect me more than others and I was told to have a second skin and toughen up," she adds.

While ADHD affects approximately 60,000 children in Ireland, according to ADHD Ireland, it can often be misdiagnosed as it presents itself differently.

For Rachel, it presented itself as a lack of focus and day dreaminess. She also struggled with some subjects more so than others.

"Maths was very difficult for me and the mental organisation was getting me down," she says.

Not only were school subjects a challenge for the young developer, but her own profession - an industry in which she has seen massive success - is not normally not an option for those with ADHD.

"I'm a programmer with ADHD and a common misconception is that people with ADHD can't program," she says.

Rachel is one of the very few software developers with ADHD. The diagnosis is traditionally seen as a hindrance to the intricate work of software developing.

However, Rachel has learned to fuel all of her racing thoughts into a project, which gives her a creative outlet.

"ADHD makes you really creative if channelled really well - you can be obsessive about things, but it's great for fleshing out ideas," she says

Having defied all the odds, Rachel was recently named one of Sky's newest Women in Technology scholars, shortly after having completed a master's degree in software development in the UK.

Together with the help of her girlfriend Ida, Rachel designed a prototype for her game 'Get Closer' in a 48-hour hackathon, or a coding marathon, in London.

The game is based on a choose-your-own adventure style, almost like Black Mirror's famous 'Bandersnatch' episode, where the viewer gets to choose what happens next.

In the game, players dialogue with a forest creature who needs their help, but the creature exhibits different types of behaviour and teaches children how to identify and cope with difficult emotions, like sadness and fear.

Not only has 'Get Closer' seen Rachel being named one of the technological giant's Women in Technology scholars, she has also been awarded €140,000 to launch the app.

Her main aim for the game is to teach young children about ADHD as well as mental health issues.

"There's a link between ADHD and the game, as it focuses on depression and sadness, anxiety and fear and anger.

"Young children lack emotional vocabulary to describe how they're feeling, so they may use a physical description, like a stomach ache."

"Our main aim for the game is to teach children how to identify those difficult emotions and learn how to cope with them."

The developer will work with a team of psychiatrists to ensure the game remains suitable and teaches children how to interact with someone who has mental health issues as well as ADHD.

"It helps develop a narrative on how to understand someone with ADHD," she says.

Now aged 27, Rachel has taken her ADHD diagnosis in her stride and has learned to understand it.

While the young high-achiever may have the makings of a very successful business on her hands, she explains that finally receiving a diagnosis has allowed her to learn ways to deal with it and develop tactics.

"I am so extremely disorganised, I've lost so many passports, phones, keys, money," she says.

"I learned strategies to deal with things."

One of these strategies involves many, many calendars, which help her keep track of her day, upcoming events and things to do.

"I have lots of calendars, a digital Google one, a small calendar book in my bag and a big one at home. I document everything because I forget everything when I have events and things on," she adds.

"I work with a lot of hardware as a developer, so I label everything, make things visual. I make space organised and take time to reset," she says.

"I make a to-do list and put down sticky notes to attach to the list."

While the road to dealing with ADHD can at times be tough, she admitted that having additional support from close relationships is key.

"My girlfriend always checks on me and is very patient with me," Rachel explains.

"She knows I'm not being careless, and it's very important if you know someone with ADHD, that the presence of mind is short term," she adds.

She admits that getting a prescription for Ritalin, an ADHD medication, was 'life changing'.

"It's one of the most positive things I've done," she says.

"I had an eating disorder for 10 years and went to therapy and I'm now trying to figure out the correlation between ADHD and eating disorders.

"My Ritalin is very strictly controlled. It can be addictive if abused, so I have a very strict agreement with my psychiatrist," she says.

Rachel hopes that 'Get Closer' can open up the conversation not just around ADHD, but mental illnesses. Most of all, she wants to open up the conversation for children who may have ADHD, specifically girls, who may pass as just being 'daydreamers'.

"Young girls or boys with ADHD are not being blasé or careless," she says.

"It was a big relief when I was diagnosed, to finally have a name on it. I always had this attitude of if I can try harder and try be better, but now I have an explanation that it wasn't my fault."

 

ADHD: the facts

⬤ It is estimated that there are 230,000 people in Ireland with ADHD, with 60,000 of these being children.

⬤ What are its symptoms? According to Ken Kilbride, Chief Executive of ADHD Ireland, it consists of three behaviours: lack of focus, impulsive behaviour (or "all lights are green") and hyperactivity.

However, this presents differently in boys and girls. "There's that old saying, 'Girls internalise, boys externalise.' Boys may be in a classroom being hyperactive and causing disruption, so they can be easier to diagnose. But girls may just daydream and gaze out of the window, not causing any trouble."

⬤ ADHD in adults:

"ADHD was before seen as a childhood condition that you grow out of," adds Kilbride. "But that's not the case - if undiagnosed, it can lead into adults trying to self-medicate, experience depression, marital breakdown or even unemployment, as well as many other issues."

ADHD is measured on a spectrum, which ranges from mild to moderate to severe. A combination of medication and behavioural therapy can be used to treat it, depending on where it places on the spectrum.

⬤ What do I do if I suspect my child has ADHD? "Parents should go to a GP, get a referral for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and go from there," says Kilbride.

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