How vet practices can best support neurodiversity

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neurodiversity veterinary practices
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As people, we’re all different, Here’s how veterinary practices can best support neurodiversity and create more inclusive workplaces. By Angela Tufvesson

At age 40, having run her own practice in Gympie in South East Queensland for 12 years, and been actively involved in the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), Jodie Wilson burnt out, sold the practice and took a job stacking shelves at a local supermarket. Around this time, she was also diagnosed as autistic, and later with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“It was autistic burnout, big time,” Wilson says. “Neurodivergent people have a constant need to mask their difference so that they can be accepted in the world. I was constantly masked with clients, with my co-workers, with drug reps who came in the door. I was the AVA Queensland Division president during that time, so I was masked in a public sense as well.”

It’s estimated that up to 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. In veterinary science, Wilson estimates, “somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent of our profession is probably neurodivergent on some level”. 

Monique Mitchelson, clinical psychologist and co-host of The Neurodivergent Woman Podcast, agrees there’s likely to be an overrepresentation of neurodivergent people in the veterinary profession. 

“Whether it’s veterinarians or vet nurses, a lot of neurodivergent people are drawn to animals,” says Mitchelson, who is also autistic and has ADHD. 

Coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s, the term neurodiversity describes a natural variation in how our brains work and how people understand and interact with the world. 

So-called neurotypical people have brains that function in a similar way to most of their peers. People with conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder and Tourette syndrome are described as neurodivergent. 

Neurodivergent people have a constant need to mask their difference so that they can be accepted in the world. I was constantly masked with clients, with my co-workers, with drug reps who came in the door. I was the AVA Queensland Division president during that time, so I was masked in a public sense as well.

Jodie Wilson, former veterinarian

An estimated one in 70 Australians are on the autism spectrum. ADHD affects around 6-10 per cent of children and three per cent of adults. Growing public awareness and acceptance of neurodivergence has led to a sharp increase in people seeking assessment and support for autism and ADHD, especially in adulthood—so the true numbers may be higher. 

However, a troubling pattern of gender bias continues to plague diagnoses of neurodivergence, with females often underrepresented in the data even though many conditions affect males and females equally. 

“The average age of diagnosis for a boy with ADHD is eight years old, while the average age for a woman is the mid-30s,” Mitchelson says. “Most of the samples that the diagnostic criteria and our assessments are based on are white, cis[gender] boys.”

Social factors also have an impact. “Women who are autistic will have learned how to mask,” Mitchelson says. “There’s more social bias teaching young girls to care for others’ emotional needs, pay attention to social cues and fit in.”

With veterinary medicine continuing to undergo a dramatic, rapid feminisation—two thirds of vets are now women, according to the AVA—the path to greater awareness and ease of diagnosis for neurodivergent vets is likely to be longer and more complex. 

Neurodivergent people can have trouble gaining a foothold at work in environments largely staffed by neurotypical workers. This group is more likely to experience unemployment and can be susceptible to mental health problems. 

Wilson says neurodivergent workers can experience difficulties with executive functioning—things such as organisation, time management and task initiation. The sensory environment and developing social connections can also prove tough to manage. 

Specific to the demands of the veterinary profession, emotional regulation and hyper-empathy can be particular challenges. “When we feel things, we feel them deeper, and we’re not able to process those emotions as well,” Wilson says. 

Universal design is the building your practice is situated in, the lighting, the colour scheme, how the rooms are laid out, the staff you employ, the scheduling practices. What will work for everybody and fulfill everybody’s universal needs will meet the needs of the neurodivergent staff.

Monique Mitchelson, co-host, The Neurodivergent Woman Podcast

“Sometimes it means we care more about the patient than the owner does. That hyper-empathy is harmful because we don’t have control. Add to that our lack of emotional regulation and I’m likely to be sobbing and rocking in the corner because somebody wouldn’t let me fix their pet, as opposed to understanding it’s not my problem and moving on.”

Much like neurotypical workers, many neurodivergent people find an inclusive and affirming role and workplace the solution to any difficulties they may be experiencing. 

After the “best break” she’s ever had, Wilson returned to the veterinary profession and a role in emergency medicine. “Right from the beginning, I knew I’d found my veterinary home,” she says. “I was seeing clients on potentially their family’s worst day ever, and they wanted me to do my job and do it well. They didn’t want me to ask how their kid’s excursion went or anything like that.” 

Now a researcher at La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Wilson says focusing on outcomes rather than methods of working can foster an inclusive practice environment. 

Using clear, explicit communication and allowing people time and space to regulate their emotions can also be helpful. Mitchelson suggests setting up a quiet break room and a more social lunch room, and advising of changes to the schedule or who’s working in which room well in advance. Including diversity, equity and inclusion training as part of the onboarding process for new staff sets the tone for the practice, she adds. 

Crucially, Mitchelson says it’s about adopting universal design principles that are affirming for everyone, rather than devising policies or making changes for specific people.

“Universal design is the building your practice is situated in, the lighting, the colour scheme, how the rooms are laid out, the staff you employ, the scheduling practices.

“What will work for everybody and fulfill everybody’s universal needs will meet the needs of the neurodivergent staff that you’re aware of, those you aren’t aware of and other intersectionalities as well.”

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