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Autism Awareness: Celebrating Autistic Doctors

Friday is international Autism Awareness Day, and with April being Autism Awareness month, we are going to be celebrating some of the most prominent autistic leaders in the medical community. These are people who are working to combat stigma and reverse harmful ideas about autistic people in medicine. What is portrayed on TV and in movies about autistic doctors and nurses is a glamorization of a reality that’s much more complex - one which is estimated to include 1% of all practicing doctors (which, in terms of US doctors, would amount to over 10,800 people.)

One notable member of the autistic medical community is Nina Louise Purvis, a student doctor, and researcher in space medicine at King’s College, London. Nina wrote in The Conversation (you can read it at its republished location in The Independent) about autistic representation on medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy, and The Good Doctor. She breaks down some main issues: TV’s frequent ignorance of everyday struggles of autistic people, like sensitivity to noise, struggling with small talk, developing coping mechanisms for organization, and overly scrutinizing interpersonal communication. She also highlights how, while representation itself is vital, it’s important that the media doesn’t lump all autistic people together under the same stigmatized portrayal. Each person is different, each person has different strengths and weaknesses, and the range of signs and diagnosis paths varies greatly between people.

Another prominent figure in this community is Dr. Mary Doherty, consultant anesthetist, Our Ladies' Hospital, in Ireland. Dr. Doherty is the leader of an online peer-to-peer support group called Autistic Doctors International, and I highly recommend you go read more about her, here. In her article, Dr. Doherty discusses how isolating it can be for those in medical professions to be diagnosed as autistic:

“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 stigmatized condition.”

Dr. Doherty also points to the number of people in her community who are still unrecognized and unsupported, despite the fact that as she says “Medicine selects for autistic traits.” She also points to the frighteningly high percentage of autism’s comorbidity with psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. With specific and timely support, Dr. Doherty believes these struggles are preventable.

As we move on into Autism Awareness month and highlight some of the most notable leaders in the autistic medical community, it’s important to prioritize giving a platform to autistic voices. With that in mind, here are some resources that you can go to educate yourself further, and to support members of the autistic community. (It should be noted that Autism Speaks is not included, and is not supported by the overwhelming majority of autistic people, due to problematic representation of autism, as well as a lack of autistic people in leadership positions, and other controversies.)

As the name suggests, this organization encourages autistic people to speak up for themselves and to push for autistic representation in non-inclusive spaces (especially those that claim to advocate for the autistic community but lack any autistic input.)

This organization aims to offer support to those on the spectrum as well as their families and loved ones, for the duration of their lifetimes.

This autistic-led group fights everyday practices of ableism and exclusion and discourages the notion that autism is a disease in need of a cure.

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