Teen told ‘autistic people can’t be doctors’ on way to medical school

An ambitious teenager with high-functioning autism has overcome his ‘biggest barrier’ by landing a place at university to study medicine.  

Harvey Smith, 18, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) two years ago, which led to a friend joking that his dream of becoming a doctor would be beyond him. 

The jibe damaged his confidence, coming after he had struggled to participate in group projects and ask teachers for help while he was unaware he had the condition. 

But the gifted student took motivation from an unlikely source after watching American medical drama The Good Doctor.

The show features Dr Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon whose exceptionalities include autism and savant syndrome, a rare condition where people with developmental disorders have an exceptional talent. 

Harvey was already interested in becoming a doctor but had given up on his dream after entering sixth-form to study Biology, Geography and PE.  

‘At the time, someone just made a joke that autistic people couldn’t apply for medicine, and then go into surgery,’ he said.

‘My friends are really supportive of me and my journey ahead, they were just playing around, but at the time I took it seriously and it impacted me applying. I started to question whether I could even apply to a medical degree due to my autism.’ 

Less than half of autistic children are happy in school, according to the National Autistic Society in a 2021 report. Harvey also had to overcome the barriers of being state educated and from a low opportunity background.

Separate figures from the Independent Schools Council released in 2011 showed that just 7% of all pupils attend private schools but 28.5% study medicine and dentistry at university. The margins for success are whittled down further when competition for places is taken into account — with some universities only accepting 10% of applicants for medical degrees. 

‘Getting into medical school is extremely hard for anyone, but as someone with autism and from a state school low opportunity background, I thought how would I be good enough for that?’ Harvey said.  

‘What were the chances I’d be in that top 10% that would get accepted?’ 

World Autism Awareness Day

The internationally-recognised day takes place annually on April 2.

The occasion marks the start of World Autism Month, which involves sharing stories and increasing understanding and acceptance.

One of this year’s activities involves supporters uploading a photograph to a ‘worldwide mosaic of unity and collaboration’.

The graphic by Ronaldo Byrd, who was diagnosed with autism aged 17, is being decorated with pictures of people from across the globe.

Organised by the Autism Speaks charity, the day also involves supporters lighting their homes or businesses in blue.

The United Nations is holding a virtual event where people from around the world will discuss the transformation in the narrative around neurodiversity and how further strides can be made.

The screen doctor gave Harvey, who lives with his brother and parents in Chelmsford, Essex, a reason to overcome the odds.

‘I liked how, even though it’s fiction, he is able to work with his staff and build work relationships with them as a strong member of the team,’ Harvey said.

‘I also connected to the parts about his memory as I also have a strong photographic memory like he does.

‘On what attracts me to medicine, I’m really interested in the scientific side, I love learning about the human body and how its systems are compromised and then fixed.’ 

The aspiring medic, who shared his story for World Autism Awareness Day, was one of only three people from his cohort at Great Baddow High School to apply to study medicine at university.  

‘My school averages C+ among students, yet medicine requires As throughout.’ he said.  

‘Medical degree applications also differ from many other UCAS applications as it involves passing an admissions test called a UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) exam before doing the personal statement and interviews with medical professionals. 

‘My teachers weren’t as familiar with the process for applying to medicine and my school didn’t have much experience guiding students through it, so getting advice was harder. But they gave me a lot of emotional support and as much help as they could.’ 

Struggling during his GCSEs, Harvey felt a place at medical school, where there is strong national competition for places, would be beyond him.  

Autistic people find it hard to communicate with others and can struggle with unfamiliar situations and events, according to the NHS.

‘Sometimes people don’t understand the way I act, so it can sometimes affect my relationships with people,’ Harvey said.

‘Also, I’m much better now but originally I wasn’t as confident with asking for help from teachers. And when I was going through my GCSEs, I didn’t know I had ASD but I knew I was different so I didn’t bother trying much as I didn’t think I’d ever be able to achieve the grades to get into medicine.’ 

A pillar of support came via social mobility project Zero Gravity, which matched Harvey with a fifth-year medical student at St George’s, University of London. His mentor gave him tips and guided him through the medical degree application process at weekly meetings.  

The undergraduate set up a real-world mock interview for the pupil at St George’s and Harvey engaged with other medical students in the platform’s community and began working in a shop and then a bar to improve his communication and confidence. The free tech platform is designed to support to those from ‘unorthodox’ backgrounds, having been started by entrepeneur Joe Seddon, who grew up in a single-parent family and also went to state school before attending Oxford.

Harvey’s efforts paid off as he scored highly in the UCAT exam last August and landed three A* in his mock A-levels.

He has found his memory is an advantage he can utilise during exams, which in turn relieves the pressure.

The sixth-former has now received an offer to study medicine at the University of East Anglia later this year, taking him closer to his aim of being a cardiothoracic or trauma surgeon. 

He has even agreed to return to his school and help future students to navigate the medical degree application process.

‘I want future generations of disadvantaged students to have the confidence to apply to medicine in the first place, and then have a better chance of getting into medical school,’ Harvey said.

‘I’m also still an active member in the Zero Gravity community, but this time giving guidance to others using my experience and trying to help other low opportunity students who are currently going through the challenging medical application process.’ 

Landing a firm university offer represents hitting a goal that Harvey, who has been supported by his parents every step of the way, feels has been the biggest challenge of his school life to date. 

‘It means a lot, as I have spent almost every day for the last two years working towards the offer and it now feels like the biggest barrier has been leapt over,’ he said. ‘I now hope to use this accomplishment and further studying to eventually become a surgeon.’ 

The United Nations-recognised awareness day on April 2 is aimed at sharing stories and increasing understanding and acceptance across the world.  

For more information about World Autism Awareness Day click here and for Zero Gravity click here 

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