My Autistic Brain is Not Doom and Gloom

“Am I going to see you again tomorrow,” I ask Tom while he heads for the door.

“No Doc,” he says, “I’m going to the hospital to visit my dad. He’s dying.”

I take a sip of my coffee. “Next week, then?”

He smiles. “Next week, see you then Doc.”

And just like that, he was gone.

Lesson 1: Beware of Wellness Gurus

I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep at my desk when I feel the touch of a hand. I don’t move at first because the person keeps saying, “time to wake up, Charles,” and I’m no Charles. Then an angry voice says, “Charlie, wake up,” and I know I’m in trouble.

Avoidance must be an autistic thing because the moment I realize that the cold musty voice nesting round my desk is Kathy, my first thought is to tip-toe away into the twilight and leave the conversation for good.

Kathy is head of HR at our clinic, and on most days, she reminds me of a wellness guru who drowns on about toxic cleanses and disordered eating patterns, insisting it’s healthy; she’s not.

Some of the nurses say that she plays people like a carousel and I wonder if they mean she’s having a whirl. I want to tell Kathy that if she spends less time entangled in my story then she won’t have to feel the need erase all evidence of my existence.

“Your interaction with Tom, was odd, wasn’t it?” she asks, as though she hasn’t come to the conclusion already.

“No,” I respond, and take a bite of my sandwich.

This is another thing. The rest of us talk about lab reports, or interesting cases, but just about everything that comes out of Kathy’s mouth is about social interaction. Sometimes I hear her make judgments about peoples’ behavior and I can see the CEO hanging on to Kathy’s every word.

Watching her talk to the CEO about other peoples’ wrong doings is like watching a ventriloquist operate a disturbed looking toy—it seemed to be alive, only you know it’s really the ventriloquist getting louder and louder and stronger and stronger, dooming the dummy to have no voice of its own.

Lesson 2: Mind Your Manners

Kathy insists that “neurologically delayed” when it comes to socializing with patients. But the way I see it, people like Kathy are exceptionally delayed when it comes to chit-chat. The only difference is, I’m kind enough to keep my internal monologue to myself. It seems like the right thing to do.

I don’t know why Kathy’s eyebrows are furrowed and why she now believes my conversation with Tom was a problem. But her criticism grows heavier, too heavy to carry home.

I sit cross legged and try to look stern like some businessman I once saw in an advertisement for socks.

But Kathy’s criticism doesn’t end.

Lesson 3: There’s No Such Thing As Normal

I’ve been an autistic doctor for over ten years now and I’ve come to believe that there’s an unusual disconnect between the needs of patients and the needs of HR.

After all, a lot of neurotypical doctors have atrocious bed side manner, but I don’t see Kathy hanging outside their office waving her pink polished fingers at them. The feedback patients give aren’t criticisms about autism. They aren’t demonizing autism at all.

Not to toot my own horn but I’m a great doctor: attention to detail, hyper focus, and a creative lens that helps me see a case from a unique angle. I look at a patients chart like a jig saw puzzle and examine all the details from the bottom-up. My patients appreciate that I’m thorough and they aren’t looking for me to be Jon Bon Jovi circa Summer of 69.

Like Tom, they’re okay with me, being me.

Lesson 4: Doom and Gloom

The idea of reading social cues makes me uncomfortable, and that’s all there is to hear about —goggle-eyed judgments from Kathy staring up at me across my wooden desk.

It isn’t just Kathy’s judgmental tone, self-righteous attitude, or know it all perspective that makes me uncomfortable. It’s the fact that she’s rigid and cold, like a bully, with a mind of her own, and criticism is her expertise.

She talks to me as though I’m foolish and self-absorbed for being myself . But I don’t want to be entangled in a story of make-believe—every second people like Kathy appear to grow bigger and stronger, but she’s just trying to morph me into being the only way she sees fit: her way.

“Charlie,” Kathy says, “I have a book that can you help.” She reaches into her bag and hands me a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People.

A small, dull laugh escapes from my mouth as Kathy tells me how it helped her win friends from all over the world.

I don’t mean a rude laugh, but an amused laugh, because I can see Kathy hugging the book like gospel truth. Kathy doesn’t have a single friend at work, and nobody pitched in to buy her a birthday cake, so her bucket hallow advice on friendship feels misplaced.

She smiles at nurse Paul walking by then stares directly at me as though a road accident has occurred. And pretty soon, I find myself captivated by an overwhelming longing to run.

It has nothing to do with me, but I can’t help wondering what it’s like to get paid to tell people that who they are is wrong. I think it must be the worst job in the world.