Med Educ. 2023 Jun 1. doi: 10.1111/medu.15119. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Increasing recognition of autism is reflected in the growing awareness of autistic health care providers. Regulatory bodies including the UK General Medical Council and the UK Medical Schools Council have published guidance fostering inclusion. Whilst many autistic doctors and students are thriving, many may not disclose their diagnosis unless difficulties arise, which perpetuates stereotypes. No studies have explored the experiences of autistic medical students. We aimed to do this.
METHODS: This was an interpretive phenomenological study. Autistic medical students were recruited using Facebook announcements. Participants underwent audio-recorded, loosely structured interviews. Recordings were transcribed verbatim and underwent an interpretive phenomenological analysis.
RESULTS: Five participated from five different UK medical schools. Constructed themes included: Autistic profiles and stereotypes-'I'm a lot better with patients than I am with my peers, with staff, which is hard for a lot of people to understand'; sensory processing and the learning environment-'noises really hurt my ears … It actually hurts'; me, myself and masking-'so, medicine's hard. But I'm also studying myself and I'm figuring myself out and that degree is harder'; the social world-'I always feel like I'm watching my back'; and navigating the system-'[they say] "but you're going to be a doctor one day, so you need to get used to it"'.
CONCLUSION: Participants longed for understanding and support from their medical schools. They reported experiences of isolation, bullying and anxiety. Most felt themselves to be victims of the system, whereby they were expected to adapt themselves in order to appear non-autistic. When participants reported not coping due to being autistic, most were advised to 'take time out'. None were offered personalised adjustments to their learning environment. All reported strengths associated with being autistic. This supports the assertion that autistic people can be safe, effective and skilled doctors.