A diagnosis of autism for one pharmacist has helped her understand herself better in terms of her career, as well as in other aspects of life

On holiday in 2018, I went on a quad bike experience and had a rough time. The noise, the movement: I was slow to learn the controls and struggled to keep up with the group. Eventually, I got the hang of it. But at this moment I realised something was wrong. Everyone else could manage, so why couldn’t I? Sitting on my sunbed later, I flicked through some articles about autistic females, and suddenly all clicked into place for me.

One article led to another; one experience to another - and I began to view my life through a different lens. Why had I struggled to maintain friendships? Why could I see patterns others could not? Why did I love light and music —feeling them to my core? Why was I always misunderstood and why did I misunderstand? I spent the next two days sobbing. At that moment of discovery — when you suddenly understand all those difficult experiences —your life flashes before you.

Now came the hard part – telling people and seeking support. There were different responses. Some who denied it – after all, I am not what people see as your typical autistic person. I am an adult female living independently who can speak, make eye contact, moderate my tone and make small talk. However, this is called ‘masking’: I watch carefully and learn how to blend in. I was well into my 30s before I perfected eye contact. It was the same with learning the rules of small talk, which includes how to couch things and ask people about themselves – an autistic person naturally relates to others by speaking directly. But, being direct can be misinterpreted as being critical or ‘short’ with someone and when others are not direct with me; I struggle to infer the true meaning. We are also deeply empathetic and take on the feelings of others, but might demonstrate it differently by turning feelings inward, giving advice, and sharing our own experiences to show understanding.

Other people told me that ‘everyone is a little on the spectrum’ — which is actually untrue. Autism is not a linear scale based on how well you appear to function. It is more about the different traits that affect you at different times and in different ways – sensory, special interests, emotions, executive function and more. It is not a learning disability (though that may be co-morbid), an illness (I have always had it), or a mental health condition (though the fallout means I do have poor mental health).

The nicest response I received was understanding that being autistic must be exhausting — which it is. Everything gets through – all the sound, light, smells around you are magnified. I wondered why others could hold a phone call or a conversation in a busy room, when I hear everything around me. My eyes take in everything and are drawn to the details of everything, which means I have to concentrate hard to focus on one thing and filter the rest out. Imagine shopping in a busy mall with bustling crowds and bright lights all around – it is very overwhelming and uses a lot of energy to cope. Some people struggle, and this is where meltdowns come in.

So, what next? Everyone has their own reasons for seeking diagnosis. For me it was to show those who did not believe me, and to access wider support. It took six months and five pages of information about myself, including AQ50 self-assessment (in line with NICE guidance) to find the courage to ring my GP.

Where I live there was a long waiting list, and it was really hard living in limbo. I spent this time thinking over things, gathering experiences, slowly telling people and getting peer support on social media. I am lucky, as this support is not universal. Nearly three years in, I received the phone call; it was then time to start revisiting some of the most challenging times in my life, which was really hard as the assessment process is so focused on your deficits and struggles.

Coming through the other side, I am thinking about who I really am and what being autistic means to me. I’m slowly telling more people and talking about strengths and reasonable adjustments. I can see stories in data and process clinical knowledge into actions. I now know that I process written communication better than verbal. I know I need quiet space to work. I wear a sunflower lanyard when visiting busy places. I need to rest after socialising or a busy day at work. Accepting this makes life easier.

As pharmacists, we are perfectionists; we love our systems, clinical knowledge and getting things right. Having these qualities is what makes me very good at some of what I do (I can memorise clinical knowledge in seconds), it also made things difficult (my consultation skills took a lot of refining). Is the profession a draw for autistic people?

Can you relate to this?

More information can be found here:

BBC article about autistic women: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/women_late_diagnosis_autism

From the NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/

National Autistic Society: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/diagnosis/pre-diagnosis/adults