One in seven people in the UK are estimated to be neurodivergent, yet it rarely features in conversation around inclusivity. That’s about to change with British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) Congress 2023 tackling the subject head-on in a neurodiversity module.
Neurodivergence is a non-medical term used to describe people whose brains process, learn and/or behave differently from what is considered “typical”.
It includes those with ADHD, autism, dyspraxia and dyslexia.
Why is neurodiversity inclusivity important?
“Neurodiversity is present in the veterinary sector but we’re not very good at recognising or acknowledging it,” says Laura Playforth, group quality improvement director, IVC Evidensia.
Laura has been recently diagnosed with autism and is an advocate for neurodiversity in the veterinary sector.
“Improving inclusivity could really help with retention, as well as attracting new recruits.
“With differences in cognitive processing, neurodiversity brings alternate perspectives to veterinary practice and is a big advantage when it comes to improving quality of care.”
“The fact we need to have the conversation is an indicator that there is work to be done,” adds Carl May, RVN, at Alsager Vets4Pets (Figure 1), the first veterinary surgery to receive the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award.
“And it’s not just about our colleagues, there’s neurodiversity among our clients too.”
How can we be more inclusive?
Raising awareness and developing understanding are the first two steps in making the veterinary sector more inclusive for neurodivergent people.
“Too often we don’t think about it,” notes Carl. “When the word ‘inclusivity’ is used, neurodivergence isn’t usually the first thing we think about – more often than not it’s race, religion or sex.”
Laura agrees: “Most of us are aware of neurodivergence but many underestimate how many people are affected, don’t know what neurodivergent traits are, what benefits they can bring and what accommodations people might need.
“And when you’re not cognisant of others’ experiences, it is too easy apply your own world perspective and be judgmental.”
Alsager Vets4Pets offers clients a tour of the practice through Google Maps enabling clients to familiarise themselves with the environment before an appointment.
The surgery has a quiet room for those who find the stimuli of a busy practice overwhelming and many of their communications can be done online, giving those that need it, more time and space to digest information before responding.
These written communications are helpful to all owners who are dealing with a stressful situation, not just those who ask for it.
“It’s these small changes that make life more comfortable,” says Carl. “They see that we are trying to understand and that has a real impact. It opens up conversations about what they need and what we can do.”
Communication is important when it comes to making a practice more inclusive for neurodiverse colleagues too.
“Find out what language, particularly descriptors, they like to use, seek to understand what they find offensive and explore any triggers they might have, as well as any accommodations they need and what strengths they bring to the team,” advises Laura.
“For some, having the radio on in theatre may simply be too much auditory stimuli, for someone else it’s something about their uniform that drives them to distraction.
“They may find eye contact difficult and making the effort to maintaining an appropriate level, takes their focus away from what’s being said.
“Some neurodiverse people need very direct conversations and / or don’t mean to be blunt or rude when they are direct with others.”
Carl is mindful of interpretation of communications. “Some take phrases very literally. ‘I’ll be there in a minute’ is interpreted not as ‘soon’, but as ‘60 seconds’ being earlier or later that this causes them stress and anxiety.
“Being more mindful of your approach and double checking that they’ve interpreted information in the way in which you intended is really important.”
“The more I’ve learnt about neurodiversity and experiences in the sector, the more I’ve come to understand how we, in the veterinary professions, can be more inclusive, and what I can do as an individual to help others who are neurodivergent,” concludes Laura.
Nikki McLeod, RVN, has over 20 years’ experience but only received her autism diagnosis five years ago, aged 45.
The diagnosis has helped Nikki understand her traits – the need for routine, tendency to get obsessed with her work, severe dislike to change – and overcome barriers in academia.
She graduated with a top-up Honours degree in Veterinary Nursing last year and is studying for her Masters.
“Previously I’ve struggled in roles,” she confesses. “I was so set in my ways and couldn’t see that others had another approach.
“Having received a diagnosis, I’ve not only been able to understand myself better but I’ve developed a deeper knowledge of others’ thinking and behaviour. It’s been eye opening.”
She says her current employers, Albavet Dunfermline, have been very supportive and accommodating.
“The key is flexibility. Breaks are really important, especially for people with autism who are prone to getting overly focused on work, only to find that they are physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day.”
Nikki feels strongly that neurodiversity ought to be considered an asset: “I’m a ‘vintage vet nurse’ and have a wealth of experience, as well as tried and tested procedures and routines which can be useful for younger team members.
“I didn’t enjoy the management side of being a head nurse, but am told I’m a natural leader. I do enjoy helping others perform.”
One of the hardest aspects of being diagnosed with autism is the stereotyping.
“Autism is a spectrum and most people with the condition aren’t like Rain Man. So, it’s important to ask people with neurodivergence what their needs are and what they need in order to do their job better.
“That conversation is really motivating; it certainly made me want to give my all,” she says. “Of course, the other part of the conversation is discussing what can’t be changed in practice.”
It ties in neatly with Nikki’s second point about handling neurodiversity – openness.
“It took me a couple of years to share my diagnosis wider than immediate family. I wish I’d done it sooner, it’s been beneficial to me, and my colleagues.”
To hear Laura, Carl and Nikki all speaking, join them at BSAVA Congress 2023 on Friday 24th March. Get your ticket here.