I am a medical student, and I also have Autism – two things most people might not expect to hear together. The phrase ‘doctor treating autism’ seems a lot more natural than ‘doctor with autism’.
I was diagnosed with Autism in 2016, aged Fifteen. Fifteen is quite late to be diagnosed with a lifelong condition; however, it is broadly accepted that there is a gender bias in autism diagnoses, with more males being diagnosed than females and females gaining later diagnoses. I believe that there are many flaws in both society’s perceptions of Autism and how it is viewed by health professionals. Many women go undiagnosed because they present differently to autistic men. Much of the indicators for Autism don’t take into account gender differences. Women are generally better at hiding their Autism compared to men and are simply viewed as ‘ a bit different’ or ‘shy’. For some people, living behind a facade is fine, and they get by, but for many women, it is exhausting to constantly pretend that you are someone you’re not, only being yourself when you are in a ‘safe’ place. Women get diagnosed with every other mental health condition but Autism because they are compared to the male representation. They gain labels that they don’t fit. A diagnosis isn’t for everyone but for me, it enabled me to be myself. Yes, people view you differently after diagnosis, but it was good for me; people were more understanding of my quirks, and life became a lot easier.
I thought it would be helpful to just give a bit of clarity on what Autism is.
What is Autism?
According to Autistica, “Autism affects the way people communicate and experience the world around them. Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome.” They then go on to list the symptoms as
“delayed or absent speech
difficulty with listening, concentrating and understanding
frequent repetition of words and phrases
taking things literally
difficulty sensing and interpreting people’s feelings
difficulty expressing feelings
over or under sensitivity to sound, touch, taste, smell or light
rituals or repetitive behaviours
disliking changes to routine
difficulty making friends and socialising”Autistica
Some people would say that I have ‘mild’ Autism, but there is no ‘mild form’ of Autism. Autism exists on a spectrum, and all individuals with Autism have traits in common that can vary in intensity. One of my favourite quotes is,
“[So-called] mild autism doesn’t mean one experiences autism mildly…It means YOU experience their Autism mildly. You may not know how hard they’ve hard to work to get to the level they are.”Adam Walton
It took a long time for me to get where I am today, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come, and I’m ready to work really hard at university and hopefully become a doctor.
If we think back to the above list of autistic traits, it may seem as if there is no hope for an individual with Autism becoming a professional. However, just like neurotypicals, we all have strengths and weaknesses that can be developed. I would argue that medicine actually selects for autistic traits. The above list only tells half of the story; there is also a list of more positive qualities that actually make an autistic person very employable.
- Autistic people usually have a greater interest in and dedication to their hobby, meaning they have great expertise. A strong work ethic and drive mean autistic individuals can progress through training programmes while minimising the effect of their personal life.
- Communication with autistic people can be very concise and clear. This means less miscommunication.
- Autistic people may have excellent attention to detail which is very desirable in some jobs. Many autistic people can easily spot anomalies, patterns, and errors. We are also very good at looking at things from different perspectives and suggesting new ideas. This is great for the problem-solving side of medicine.
- Autistic people are generally very self-aware and only need a few things in order to feel content. As long as there is routine and structure, we are mostly happy. This is a positive trait for being at medical school because there is a lot of self-study and time spent studying whilst others are ‘having fun.
- Autistic people are likely to be very reliable, honest, loyal, and committed. Because we are different ourselves, we are generally very open-minded and non-judgmental, which makes good doctor-patient relationships.
- Contrary to popular belief, autistic people are incredibly empathetic and develop excellent communication skills. I was really pleased when I was told that I give good eye contact by my communication skills teacher as it is something that I have worked really hard on overtime.
The issues that autistic people encounter during medical school are likely to be unrelated to the degree. However, due to the Equality Act, which involves ‘Reasonable Adjustments’, there is a lot of support out there to assist autistic students. There is also the DSA (disabled student allowance), which can help people by providing aids to studying.