This Doctor Can: The autistic doctor

Discovering she was autistic helped make sense of everything for Dr Mary Doherty (@autisticdoctor). She describes the joys of building a community of autistic doctors.

I’ve always been autistic. I didn’t know this as a child, when I was utterly obsessed with the human body and determined to be a doctor, nor as a young adult struggling through medical school and the training years. How did I get to be a consultant anaesthetist in my mid 40s before anyone realised?

I’ve always had to battle the social and sensory challenges that go with being autistic, but until recently without having any idea what was happening, why life constantly seemed so difficult and other people seemed so odd. Multiple opportunities for an accurate diagnosis were missed as I struggled in vain throughout my adult life to find help for recurrent anxiety and depression.

Being diagnosed or self-identifying as autistic can be difficult for a doctor. It can feel very isolating, because autism remains widely misunderstood and unfortunately is still a stigmatised condition.

Dr Mary Doherty

It was only when my son was diagnosed as autistic that everything finally made sense: my unconventional lifestyle and career path, my sequential interests which are unusual in their variety and intensity, my sensory preferences and my absolute need for solitude. Finally understanding that my experience of the world is different from that of non-autistic people allows me to understand my needs and ensure they are met, and at this point I love being autistic and no longer struggle with mental health issues.

Being diagnosed or self-identifying as autistic can be difficult for a doctor. It can feel very isolating, because autism remains widely misunderstood and unfortunately is still a stigmatised condition. My quest to connect with other autistic doctors led me to start a peer-to-peer online support group, Autistic Doctors International, which is growing rapidly. There are so many of us working in medicine, and most are still unrecognised and unsupported.

Medicine selects for autistic traits. High-achieving autistic individuals are intensely focused perfectionists with great attention to detail and often have particular strengths in pattern recognition, all skills which are clearly advantageous in medicine. Autistic people are often creative thinkers and problem solvers, and contrary to popular assumptions have been shown to exhibit high degrees of empathy. Increased recognition means more students are entering medical school with an existing autism diagnosis. For others, it is only when the demands of postgraduate training or independent practice, perhaps coupled with adverse life events, overwhelm existing coping strategies that diagnosis, support and adjustments become essential.

Recognising that I am autistic allows me to understand the challenges of living in a society designed for the non-autistic majority and to find strategies to cope effectively. I’m happier now than at any point in my life

Dr Mary Doherty

Autism is associated with co-occurring psychiatric disorders, notably anxiety and depression, which occur in up to 80% of people with autism. Suicide rates in autistic adults are nine times greater than the general population and because we know that suicide is a particular concern for doctors, we can surmise an even greater risk for autistic doctors – particularly those who remain unsupported and possibly undiagnosed. While many are practising successfully, autistic doctors commonly experience personal and professional difficulties. Change of career or early retirement is common, yet with specific support many of these difficulties are remediable, and timely support would lead to increased retention of highly skilled colleagues.

Recognising that I am autistic allows me to understand the challenges of living in a society designed for the non-autistic majority and to find strategies to cope effectively. I’m happier now than at any point in my life and the joy of building a community of autistic doctors is deeply fulfilling.

Autistic Doctors International (ADI) is an information and peer support group for doctors on the autistic spectrum founded in 2019, with members in Europe, UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Formal diagnosis is not required to join and we can be contacted by sending a message via the public Facebook page.