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How I Succeed in a High-Stress Career as an Autistic Person

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The shrill sound of bone saws. Bright lights. The harsh smell of bone cement. Many people talking at once. Different tones of beeping from the heart monitor, oxygen sensor, and ventilator. Heavy metal music blasting from a speaker right near me. Sounds of hammering from big orthopedic equipment.  Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, I have a patient’s life in my hands.

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s almost certainly not the environment you’d expect to find an autistic person working in. Yet each weekday morning I’m up at 3:00 A.M. to get ready for work in the operating room as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, doing anesthesia for major surgery. It isn’t an easy job for anyone, but toss in being autistic and the job gets even tougher.

I wasn’t even diagnosed with autism until age 50. I went my entire life not knowing why I was
different and never fit in. It wasn’t until one evening while at work when a co-worker told me about her son getting diagnosed, and I looked at her papers that I realized I’m on the spectrum. I got formally diagnosed three weeks later.

Embarking on my career wasn’t easy, because there are so many sensory issues to contend with in the operating room, and I had to learn to cope with it all. Back when I was in my training at Columbia University and the big New York City hospitals, I didn’t know why all the extreme levels of stimuli never seemed to bother anyone else in the operating room. Now I understand.

I have to interact with endless people each day in preparation for each case — the patient, their family, the surgeons, the OR staff, the anesthesiologist, and other staff. Back in the beginning, it was so painfully difficult for me to do this. Yet because I’ve done it over and over, it got easier all the time. I have now been in this career for 28 years, done over 50,000 cases, and interacted with over 1 million people.

Each patient presents with a different medical history, type of surgery, and medications they are taking. All that affects the type and way each anesthetic is administered. I’ve learned to be flexible and spontaneous to adapt to the daily changes that present themselves. Each weekday I go to my job and spend 10 or more hours working with an ocean of neurotypicals. I must keep up with them or else I’d sink.

Yes, I’m mentally drained by the end of each day. I listen to my co-workers in the locker room at the end of each day talking about how exhausted they are. I feel as though my exhaustion goes far beyond theirs, because they are not autistic. The massive sensory overload I endure does take a toll on me. But somehow I have built up a tolerance, to be able to withstand it and function at my job. I developed this ability over time, from doing over and over again. My success demonstrates that despite being autistic, I was able to gradually build that tolerance.

I know many people on the autism spectrum who have a job, which is great. But it’s rare to find someone working a high-stress, fast-paced job like I am, with lots of social interaction. I aspire to be an inspiration to others on the spectrum, and their families, and to demonstrate that you can achieve great things if you push yourself beyond your comfort zone and follow your dreams.

I often feel like a magician, “Master of the Impossible,” doing a job so demanding, so fast-paced, so high-stress, and with constant change. Over the years, I had to step outside my comfort zone. Of course it was scary, but I did it. And I believe you can too!

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Originally published: October 11, 2016
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