Exploring neurodiversity within your practice
28 April 2023
Neurodiversity isn’t spoken about nearly as much as it should be. The prevalence of neurodiversity in vets is unknown and difficult to establish, as so many people are often not diagnosed until much later in life. However, it’s estimated that around 15 – 20% (1 in 7) of the UK population is neurodivergent1.
BSAVA Congress 2023 saw its first ever module on neurodiversity take place on Friday 24 March, with the biggest take home message being how you can learn more about neurodiversity and apply this learning to your practice, whether it’s with your own employees, colleagues, or clients.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term used to describe alternative thinking styles such as ADHD, Autism, ADD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dyspraxia4. In an ‘Introduction to Neurodiversity’ lecture at Congress, speakers Kirstie Pickle and Anthony Friel highlighted some key statistics on neurodiversity prevalence. In the UK, 700,000 people have autism spectrum disorder; around two million people have been diagnosed with dyslexia and there has been a 787% increase in ‘autism diagnosis’ over the past two decades. 2 Co-occurrence of syndromes is common, with 50 – 70% of people with autism also presenting with ADHD23. BSAVA’s Keynote Speaker, Samantha Hiew, who was diagnosed late with ADHD at the age of 40, highlighted that 34% of autistic young adults choose STEM career paths, therefore the likelihood of working with neurodivergent colleagues or clients in the veterinary profession is not inconsiderable.
So how can you support your neurodivergent teams and clients within your practice?
Looking through a different lens
Laura Playforth, Group Quality Improvement Director at IVC Evidensia, who spoke within the talk on ‘Inclusive communication in neurodivergent teams’ said: “You need to look at things through a different lens” and understand how people’s experiences can be very different to your own. It’s important to recognise that there are communication differences in neurodivergent people, with evidence that neurodivergent people struggle in communication with neurotypical people.
There are sensory differences that can have a big impact on how neurodivergent individuals experience day to day life. Sound, light, smell, touch, texture, proprioception, perfumes, and body sprays can all be environmental triggers, which can lead to sensory overload or meltdowns. “We don’t have the conversation that adults have meltdowns and shutdowns too, as well as children,” Laura explained, “and being an ally means to normalise these differences and challenge unhelpful stereotypes.”
No two neurodiverse people are the same
Speaking within the same session, Carl May RVN, reflected on how he struggled with learning at school, and how at the age of 14 he was told by a career’s advisor that he was unemployable. He was later diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 43.
In 2018, Carl’s practice (Alsager Vets4Pets) became the first veterinary practice to be given the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly award. There are many advantages to being neurodivergent, Carl explained. “The ability to stay focused and out of the box thinking can lead to different solutions and challenges. We can get very focused on one thing at a time and have strong skills in areas such as art and technology. In practice these attributes are good things to have.”
Speaking about how his practice became autism friendly, Carl mentioned the following steps:
Some neurodiverse people may fear the unknown and not knowing what to expect. Carl’s practice has a Google tour on its website so that people can virtually walk through the practice and already know where they are going, whether a student, new colleague, or client. He also said don’t be afraid to ask neurodivergent individuals questions, such as how does the condition affect them and what can you do to help? Running neurodiversity awareness training in practice can also be a great way of ensuring everyone is understanding of how they can help neurodivergent clients or colleagues.
Environment and accommodations
There are plenty of environmental triggers that can lead to sensory overload or meltdowns. Avoiding bright lights, keeping areas clutter free and providing a quiet space within the practice are all adjustments which can make a big difference to clients attending appointments and to colleagues throughout the day who may feel overloaded. If someone may need to wear ear defenders, headphones or sunglasses, remember it doesn’t have to be a big deal, and encourage them to feel okay to come and talk to you if an environmental factor needs changing or they need an accommodation.
Pace and flexibility
“Slow and steady wins the race”, Carl said. “Neurodiverse people can struggle to take in new information and may need more processing time. It’s important to be clear and concise with information, keep checking that the pace is okay and understand if it isn’t”. Make sure to provide opportunity for adequate breaks – being neurodiverse can be tiring, dealing with all of the stimuli around. People can sit in a quiet room, sit using their phone, or run around the practice if they need to, depending whether they’re over- or under-stimulated at the time.
Language and learning
You can ask clients for their preferred form of communication, whether spoken, written or visual. If possible, provide written feedback; this could be especially helpful for clients who are being given a lot of information about their pet. Ambiguous language can cause anxiety, so make things as clear as possible. Avoid comments like ‘This is easy’ or ‘It should take around five minutes’. If clients don’t find it easy or if it starts to take longer than five minutes, they’re going to struggle. Remember that they may also have difficulty keeping still or find themselves to be easily distracted. The thing to remember is no two neurodiverse people are the same, personalities can be widely different, and everyone should be treated with respect.
To find out more about the Autism Friendly Award for your practice, visit: https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/solutions-for-business/autism-friendly-award.