‘I always thought I was eccentric – when I was diagnosed with autism as an adult, everything finally made sense’

Anaesthetist Dr Mary Doherty: "I had a very stereotypical view of autism and I certainly did not fit that.”

Eilish O'Regan

Hospital consultant Dr Mary Doherty spent decades thinking she was a bit “odd or eccentric” but it was not until her diagnosis as autistic a decade ago that everything made sense.

Dr Doherty, an anaesthetist in Our Lady’s Hospital, Navan, Co Meath, said: “The possibility of being autistic never entered my head. I had a very stereotypical view of autism and I certainly did not fit that.”

She only found out after going for screening following her son’s diagnosis.

“Looking back it was blindingly obvious I was autistic as a child. I was the classic ‘little professor’, finding it much easier to interact with adults than my same-age peers, enjoying a series of intense, focused interests where I would acquire enormous amounts of knowledge on a topic.

“For example, dogs were an intense interest for a while. I used to enjoy spending hours reading the Kennel Club breed standards. There was a time I knew the ideal requirements for all the various breeds of dog.

“Socially, I always felt different to most people. I was always on the periphery of groups, until I found a gang of like-minded eccentrics in my university years. As I look back, most of the people I got on well with would have been neurodivergent.

“I also had a lot of what I now know to be sensory issues. Difficulties with lights, sounds, fabrics, even food textures and tastes. I had no idea they were autism-related, and knowing now makes my life so much easier.”

Dr Doherty decided to train as an anaesthetist “for very autistic reasons”.

“I liked the predictability, the fact that we generally give our complete focus to one patient at a time rather than managing many patients simultaneously. And sensory issues meant I liked wearing scrubs – looking back, that was a huge part of the reason I was comfortable in anaesthesia, although I didn’t realise it at the time.

“Knowing I’m autistic makes it so much easier,” she added. “Previously, I might have been very upset by sudden changes of plans or miscommunications, without having any idea why. Now I know I’m autistic I can set up my life to meet my needs.

“Communicating with non-autistic colleagues requires effort – it’s a bit like speaking a foreign language where you have to think about the words you use, check how your message is being received, as well as having to consciously decode what others are communicating. It’s exhausting. Communicating with patients is a lot easier.”

She said: “The recognition that adults can be autistic is fairly recent, and particularly so for women. There are loads of autistic medical consultants, although many don’t yet realise. Medicine selects for autistic strengths, but recognition that autistic doctors exist is fairly recent.

“Many doctors have autistic kids, and lots of parents are coming to the realisation that they too are autistic. Most don’t disclose because of stigma, and the myths and misconceptions about autism. Many people associate autism with intellectual disability or think of small boys lining up their toys.

“The myth that autistic people do not have empathy is widespread. It’s not true, of course, but it means that lots of autistic people – who know they are empathic – don’t even consider the possibility that they could be autistic.”

Dr Doherty is founder of Autistic Doctors International (ADI) which now has 700 members around the world. The most common specialty is general practice, and next is psychiatry. Anaesthetists are third.​

She was speaking in advance of the Neurodiversity and Mental Health Virtual Global Conference, which takes place next week and is organised by UCD and ADHD Ireland.

“It’s not just about autism, it’s neurodiversity more broadly and it’s relevant to all, including mental health professionals, teachers, community members, and parents of autistic or otherwise neurodivergent kids. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing from many of the speakers about how working with autistic adults has changed their professional practice.”

Dr Doherty pointed to the enormous need in Ireland for services to support families of autistic children as well as autistic adults.

“The poor mental health outcomes of autistic people are not inevitable, but large numbers of people attending mental health services are autistic yet possibly unrecognised. An autism diagnosis can be life-changing in such circumstances.

“Similarly, autistic people are over-represented among those dealing with substance issues, as well as among the homeless population. Embedding autism training into medical education and continuing development for all professionals who come into contact with autistic people is vital.”