Last year, after I completed my remote autism assessment and was given my conclusive diagnosis, I asked the assessor whether they had evaluated many autistic doctors who were also GPs.
They responded by saying that they didn’t feel that a doctor with autism would be able to handle the social interactions and empathy needed to be a GP. A rather odd response to say to a practising GP, but I felt that they genuinely believed what they were saying.
Autism has many synonyms. Officially it should be called autism spectrum disorder, but it used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome (but alleged Nazi connections has made that eponym noxious) and nowadays many people call us neurodivergent (which also encompasses ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette, and tic syndrome).
Many of you might be thinking why I got myself diagnosed now, as an adult.
Was I a part of the trend last year where many adults during early lockdowns wanted autism assessments after their children had been diagnosed? Melanie Sykes, the TV celebrity and ex-model, revealed she was autistic early last year, which surprised many. The answer in my case is no.
My first inkling that I may be autistic was when I went through the Clinical Knowledge Summaries’ suspected autism diagnostic questions for a telephone consultation with a young man. As he answered various questions, I thought to myself that I could answer many of them too. This got me thinking, so I discussed it later with my partner. Prior to that day, I’d never considered myself to be autistic.
I was aware of the extremely long waiting time for an NHS assessment, so rather than join the long two+ year queue and take pressure of stretched NHS services, I chose to go private.
Getting my diagnosis has been a double-edged sword. It’s helped me (and my partner) to make sense of some of my mannerisms. The diagnosis also made me sad for my childhood. The struggles I had at school – the dreadful bullying, academic struggles, crippling social anxiety, and impression when people first met me that I was odd, aloof, and practically mute. I always thought that I was this shy kid who got bullied, but without any real understanding as to why I was like that.
For a long time after my diagnosis, I didn’t want to tell anyone, other than my partner. I’d become more aware of my actions, especially at work. Contrary to what my assessor thought, interactions with patients never caused me any issues because they were structured. I knew when a patient came to see me that they were looking for a diagnosis, investigations and management. All structured! And the empathy issue. Well, that’s never been an issue either. I can show real sentiment when the situation requires it, and don’t act like a robot.
Where I struggle most is unstructured meetings with colleagues where I don’t know what to expect. One once commented that sometimes I appear to go into teenage mode, like I’m having a strop. This is called an autistic shutdown or meltdown, and happens when I’m overwhelmed.
Hannah Gadsby, the Emmy-winning Australian comedian, wrote a brilliant Guardian article this March, where much of what she described rang true for me: ‘From the outside, a shutdown looks very similar to a sulky tantrum, but it is nothing of the sort. I don’t have control, for a start’.
It’s still early days for me on my autism journey. I’ve told friends and family, and their responses have been good, but telling my workplace is my biggest worry. I’m aware that I can ask for reasonable adjustments and that upon disclosure I’m protected by the Equality Act 2010, but I’m worried about how they’ll react and treat me subsequently.
I’ve been fortunate to have spoken to some GPs living with autism, and disclosure has been a double-edged sword for them too, but in most cases, being open has taken a great weight of their shoulders, like it has done for me.
‘Not another autistic GP’ is a GP in South West England and can be found on Twitter at twitter.com/asdgpme