Dr. Shaun Murphy may be fictional, but I am not.
No, I’m not a surgeon – or a savant – like the TV character so brilliantly portrayed in The Good Doctor by British actor Freddie Highmore. But I am autistic, and I do treat patients every day.
Two years ago, at the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) annual conference, I sat next to my wife in a Sheraton ballroom, listening to the fascinating keynote speaker, Sarah Hendrickx. I was attending as a psychologist and parent of an autistic son — at least, that’s what I thought. With every passing minute of the speech, however, dizzying waves of dread swept over me.
Sarah’s a successful professional and yet she’s autistic. I’m a successful professional; is it possible I’m autistic, too?
Part of me recoiled at the thought, echoing the iconic Star Wars scene when Darth Vader proclaims he’s Luke Skywalker’s father, saying, “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” I felt like Luke then, wanting to scream “Noooo!”
The DSM-V, the diagnostic “bible” for mental health professionals, describes one of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder as “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” As a child, I would develop a consuming passion for topics such as herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) or astronomy, reading and talking about little else for years at a time.
The DSM also refers to “persistent difficulties in the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication.” As an adult, without knowing why, I struggled for years to intuit the emotional language that seemed to come so naturally to many of my colleagues: gestures, expressions, tone of voice. And when it suddenly, belatedly dawned on me at age 54 that I was autistic, one of my first reactions was that maybe I shouldn’t be working as a therapist.
After all, I’d relied on rote learning for such basics as eye contact and smiling; didn’t that mean I lacked the right stuff? But that’s just it: autistics are great rote learners. I had mastered, albeit slowly and clumsily, what I needed to know in order to help others. Caring about others was an essential part of me, even if learning how to show it effectively was a long road.
Dr. Murphy, contemplating a risky heart surgery on a young boy, asked, “Is fear of failure a good reason not to do this?” Maybe I should have approached my career with the same attitude.
Realizing in midlife that you’re autistic can shatter your self-image. Fortunately, I live near AANE, where I attended a support group called Mental Health Providers on the Spectrum. My newfound interest in Asperger’s Syndrome led me to collaborate with my high-functioning autistic co-researchers, Dr. Wilma Wake (also a therapist, diagnosed in her sixties) and statistician Rob Lagos. We surveyed 150 older autistic adults like ourselves around the world and learned that others were daunted by the adjustment to an autism diagnosis as well. For example, one of our survey takers recalled, ”I felt like I had lost my lifelong identity and went through a year of mourning.”
But while my self-diagnosis of autism/Asperger’s killed off my old identity, it also gave birth to a new one: an “Aspie,” a member of a “neurotribe” I’d never really noticed before. It illuminated the many similarities between me and my adult autistic son I’d so long denied. We both have rigid routines (e.g., eating a narrow repertoire of foods) and an all-or-nothing approach (he wants all the blinds in a room either open or closed, and I would rather skip a movie altogether than arrive five minutes late). More strikingly, I could now see links between me and my father, now 86 and undoubtedly an undiagnosed Aspie himself.
Once the healing from a decimated identity begins, new hope emerges. Other participants from our survey report:
“The final pieces of the puzzle as to why I am the way I am fell into place.”
“I consider my Asperger’s my ‘superpower’…since I’ve embraced who I am and what it is, a lot of things seem better.”
“Since coming to terms with my diagnosis over the past year, I feel more happy and at peace with myself.”
Tomorrow I return to the annual AANE conference, the same event where that chilling realization struck me two years ago. It’s been a jarring journey, but I’m finally finding some peace, too.