Learn how this student landed an acceptance while he was open about his autism throughout the medical school application process! Our guest today is very open about having autism in his application. He is going to share why he was told not to include that in the application and why he did anyway which ultimately led to his success.
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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
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[02:00] The Desire to Become a Physician
Wanting to become a physician was less of an epiphany and more of a slow, cumulative process over his childhood and adolescence.
Fox was diagnosed with a moderate form of autism when he was four years old. He immediately started receiving early intervention – ABA, CBT, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists.
[02:46] Openly Discussing Autism in His Med School Application
Fox has been very open about his autism, what he had overcome and what he had to live with. He included this in his application to medical school despite that virtually everybody he talked to had advised him not to talk about it.
To him, it’s an integral aspect of who he is as a person. To withhold it would mean not to be able to not talk about who he is and he would just be a completely different person.
If you have something that may be a potential red flag but is core to why you want to be a physician, which is the whole goal of the personal statement, then you will have to talk about it. It now becomes a question as to how you are going to talk about it.
You will have to decide to show them who you are as your authentic self and it is up to them to take it or leave it.
Fox showed them how his autism gave him a unique perspective and skill set that made him an invaluable asset to medical schools and their student body“Instead of talking about my disorder as if I accomplished things in spite of it, I talked about how I accomplished what I did, because of it.”Click To Tweet
[05:45] Experiences as a Neurodiverse Care Worker
Fox focused primarily on the anecdotal experiences he gained from his extracurricular activities as a direct care worker for people on the spectrum or an ER technician and having patients on the spectrum.“Being on the spectrum, I'm able to empathize with these neurodiverse patients.”Click To Tweet
He says he is able to help calm them. He can make them feel heard, welcomed, and understood in a way that someone who is neurotypical would not immediately know how to approach the situation.
Because of his neurodiversity, he is able to interact with other neurodiverse patients in a way that a neurotypical person might not be able to do in the same way. That is a skill set that he is bringing to the class.
[07:27] Capacity to Empathize and Work in a Team
Dealing with Self-Doubt
Fox admits that he had a lot of self-doubt. He thinks it was something that was externally instilled because of some preconceived notions about people on the spectrum and their capacity for empathy and the capability to work in a team.
When he started at his first hospital, volunteering in the emergency department, he quickly realized that he was perfectly capable of empathizing with his patients and working in a team. He just needed to throw himself into that environment.
Fox has about 10 years of social dynamics skills classes that he had to go through. He also went to countless summer and overnight camps for people on the spectrum. A lot of people that he knows in his community are on the spectrum.“Pretty much all of us are very empathetic people; it's just that we have trouble figuring out how to properly place that empathy.”Click To Tweet
Fox has been through a lot of coaching, training,, and education therapy around his diagnosis. He thinks that made a big difference in his success, bringing him where he is today.“Not everyone is able to receive those services on an equivalent level..one of the biggest things when it comes to moderate and mild autism is early intervention.”Click To Tweet
[09:57] Premed Journey
Fox went to a state school before the local school that he graduated from. He went there for two years but lacked the emotional intelligence to do well in his classes. He racked up 11 withdrawals over three semesters and ended up dropping out of his first state college entirely.
He wanted to be a physician but in his first college, he had no idea as to how the process even worked. He did not know that he had to do extracurriculars or shadow a physician.
Transition from High School to College
Like any other incoming freshman, he also got that homesickness in that newfound independence where you don’t exactly know what to do with yourself.
For Fox and for a lot of other neurodiverse people that he knows, it is exacerbated by the transition from high school where there is an individualized education plan if you have a disorder. It focused primarily on social skills more than academics.
He was held back from Algebra 1 in middle school when he got an A and ended up not taking calculus in his senior year because of the way it snowballs.
When he was entering freshman-level calculus in college, it was something he had never seen before and that definitely put him at a disadvantage to his neurotypical peers.
[13:15] Finding Motivation
For someone with neurodiversity, he was motivated that he can accomplish anything he wants. The leader of the volunteer group at his local college where he graduated gave him this motivation.
They had different volunteer groups in college where students can join and they are placed in different fields and positions. Fox chose to be a volunteer for his local emergency department.
The leader was a junior premed who was a quiet guy and did not talk a lot about the process. Fox was someone who asked a lot of questions and their leader seemed to appreciate that. They had good heart-to-heart moments talking about how everything works and just seeing him go through it.“Someone three years ahead of me...fully engrossed in the process of applying to medical school, as much as it was daunting, it was oddly empowering and motivating at the same time.”Click To Tweet
Fears of Opening Up as a Neurodiverse
Fox says it is scary to be this open about his neurodiversity because there is no one else in his position that he can seek guidance from. When he shares things on different social media platforms and gets criticism for it, he feels bad and realizes that maybe he was wrong in that instance.
At the same time, someone has to do it. He feels he is nobody special but to him it feels right. He feels that it is what he is supposed to be doing with himself.
[16:34] Media Representation of Autism
There is a TV show that portrays a neurodiverse physician. Fox thinks that it’s a double-edged sword. It is always great to bring more representation to the media. But looking at it from a nuanced lens, the show portrays him as autistic, but what allows him to excel as a surgeon is his Savant syndrome. That is primary but it is portrayed as secondary which is fine. But to him, it is always going to be a double-edged sword.“It's better that the general public has more awareness and knowledge of autism.” Click To Tweet
Fox had three interviews. For the most part during those interviews, being on the spectrum was not really made a big deal. It felt for him as if they all went by really quickly also because of how nervous he was.
One of those interviews was MMI so there was not much chance for that to be explored sufficiently. For the other two, he made an effort to center his conversation around how he was able to do everything he does and tell them that he is also neurodiverse. To him, they seem as if they did not appreciate it, but coming from an applicant’s perspective, he can only assume so much.
Straightforward Question About His Spectrum
The most straightforward question about his neurodiversity was when he was being asked why his autism makes him unique.
They asked him how his autism is going to be any different than anyone else in terms of succeeding in medical school and providing competent care for patients and working in a team with fellow physicians and mid-levels and nurses.
[19:40] Preparation for Med School
The time spent in medical school requires lots of studying and learning. There are also a lot of clinical experiences and interactions with the attendings that are out there. Unfortunately, medicine is still known to be a pretty conservative world.
From a neurodiversity standpoint, Fox is going to be the one who is different in the same way as those people of color and underrepresented minorities. He admits he honestly does not know how to prepare for that.
But what he can tell is this: He has been working in the emergency department as a technician for the past year. Previously he was an EMT for the past two years. Every institution and every department that he was a part of, he ended up finding his niche or his spot in the group.“I've found that as long as I am able to do the work that I'm assigned and do it well, people really don't care if I am a little weird.” Click To Tweet
That is what he has experienced so far. It might be different once he hits rotations or his residency but he feels comfortable as of now how he is meshing with groups of people.
For neurodiverse people to try to play as neurotypicals, they mask. For someone who was able to figure out his spot in this world on the spectrum as a neuro-diverse individual, as a premed student, as a future medical student, and as a future physician, Fox does not seem to mask much but he admits that he does. He says he actually masks very well.“You can't tell if someone's masking if they're masking well..and you can tell if they are masking if they are not masking well.” Click To Tweet
The whole point of masking is to compensate for one’s inability to naturally be and act in accordance with what’s expected of a neurotypical person. It’s a conscious effort.
Fox is constantly retrieving what he learned from his social dynamic classes and having to analyze people’s faces. He says it can be quite exhausting sometimes. He doesn’t see it as something that is ultimately detrimental. Fox says it is more like a muscle that you work and it gets better with time.
The Subjectivity of Being a Neurotypical and a Neurodiverse
There are things such as the maladaptive nature and the pathophysiology of disorders. At the same time, you can have obsessive-compulsive tendencies but not have obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can be anxious but not have a general anxiety disorder.“Everyone has a component of some sort of neurodiverse feature.”Click To Tweet
In a way, we’re all on the spectrum. We are all neurodiverse in some shape or form. Society just needs to learn to better accommodate all of our quirks and to be more accepting of diversity in all forms.
Ask Questions“Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” Click To Tweet
Schools such as the one Fox was accepted to are hosting neurodiverse sessions and they are having these conversations.
Just keep asking questions. Ask about autism, how to empathize, and read faces, body language, and thoughts about social norms because the answer you get might surprise you.
[28:28] Finding the Right School
Fox applied to all the schools in his vicinity, something he does not recommend others would do. He did not look that much into the reason if the school is the right fit for him. He says he was in a way forced to cast a wide net because of his fairly low stats.
He focused on the vicinity primarily because of his extracurricular activities. He has strong ties to his city. It was much preferable for him to stay there and continue with his working relationships in the area which he was able to accomplish.
[29:42] Receiving the News on His Acceptance
Fox was waiting past the recommended deadline to hear back from the med school. It was the day before Christmas Eve and he knew that if he did not hear back right then and there, it would be two more weeks to hear back from them. But it culminated in receiving a congratulatory note of his acceptance to PCOM.
He was supposed to tell his mom first but it happened that his brother called him right after his acceptance and he just told him the news. He says it felt surreal that he did not even believe the words that were coming out of his mouth.“I just knew that the next four years of my life were going to be this new amazing, but terrifying journey.”Click To Tweet
[31:30] Looking Ahead with Preparation
Fox finished his social dynamic skills classes in high school. He is now focused on developing his interprofessional relationships as a future physician and his working relationship with his colleagues and his patients and with himself as well.“It's much less of learning how to do things that neurotypical people can do and focusing more on self-actualization and internalization and self-reflection.”Click To Tweet
[32:40] Final Words of Wisdom
You do not need to disclose. There is still a taboo and it very well could hurt your application. In his opinion, it is probably the best thing that you can do for neurodiversity, for yourself, for your neurodiverse peers, and for the future of our role in medicine.
Fox encourages you to do so. And if you do choose to do so, you have his full endorsement and he welcomes questions about how to do it.