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Autistic vet students can bring an array of qualities to a team

Written by: Laur Charleston
Published on: 12 Mar 2024
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Laur Charleston

Images: Laur Charleston

Work placements are an integral component embedded within veterinary degrees, which bring excellent opportunities to gain hands-on experience and insight into real life clinical scenarios, to enhance team-building skills and to navigate working under pressure.

These positions are valuable in encouraging students to recognise the intended direction of their future career pathway as a vet.

Autistic individuals commonly display a strong passion for animals and will often smile more and seek tactile contact when animals are utilised in animal-assisted interventions.

Temple Grandin, autistic animal behaviourist, combined her farm animal welfare and autism research with the creation of the “The Temple Grandin Hug Machine”, to encourage deep-pressure stimulation to elicit a calming response in cattle and autistic individuals.

Autistic minds are wonderfully unique, often routine orientated, and tainted with a profoundness to support the expression of special interests and flowing hyper-fixations that often change like the seasons. Although I have held a variety of interests that have soon diminished in their appeal, my passion for animals remains as strong and as present as it ever has been.

Passion for animals

Laur and friends.As a late-diagnosed autistic, I cannot pinpoint a time in which I developed a passion for animals. I believe that early years pet ownership fed into it and introduced me to responsibility and compassion.

I remember that I felt naturally accepted, comfortable and at ease in their presence following the lack of communication-orientated pressure, combined with a strength to let down my mask and to be my truest, most authentic self without the fear of judgement. I was often met with comments such as: “You’re a natural around animals”, and “You’re a different person around animals” and “I know that your future career will involve animals in some way”.

For autistic individuals, additional challenges may surface at the time of placements. It is vital to recognise that autism, alongside its strengths, does bring obstacles. The first being to disclose, or not disclose, an autism diagnosis, which brings the fears of being treated differently or being labelled as incapable due to variabilities in working style and communication methods. Autistic individuals can, and will, thrive in environments where they feel supported, accommodated and heard. But, respectfully, this is not a “one shoe fits all” approach.

The role of a vet includes strong communication skills, which can be challenging for autistic individuals due to processing delays and “small talk”, which may be confused with a lack of interest or enthusiasm.

In line with being defined by the National Autistic Society as “a developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world”, autistic individuals are generally comfortable with being left alone after transparent instructions have been provided, so may not ask many follow-up questions. Noted, this does not signify a lack of interest or a “know it all attitude”, but highlights commitment, enjoyment and fixation with the task in hand.

On the other hand, hyper-fixations and “special interests” coincide with autism, so the student may attempt to learn and try all aspects of the placement. For example, I am hugely passionate about goats, so will want to talk about them all day.

In contrast, it may become taxing to seek further information if this has been misinterpreted the first time. The autistic method of listening to a conversation may differ from a neurotypical counterpart, with a reduction in eye contact and the prevalence of ‘stimming’: self-stimulatory behaviours to gain an element of comfort and security in an environment. Moreover, autistic individuals can find it difficult to read situations and to detect non-verbal cues, which can contribute to communication barriers.

Laur and goat

Initiatives to help

The following list of helpful initiatives is non-exhaustive; no two autistic individuals are the same, and they will more often than not differ in their support requirements.

  • Give information prior to placement: autistic individuals thrive on structure, familiarity and routine. Although these factors are uncommon within the veterinary world due to the unpredictability of animals, small fragments of information can be greatly received and appreciated; for example, will other students be at the farm? If so, how many? How many members of staff work at the farm? What time, roughly, can I be expected to start and finish a day?
  • Explain why: autistic brains are curious and often seek the “whys” in life. Although we cannot always explain the whys in life, it is advised that these are addressed as and when applicable. This helps to reduce anxiety and to aid curiosity.
  • Disclosing a diagnosis: opting to disclose an autism diagnosis is a significant decision which brings elements of trust. It can replicate letting a guard down and can, therefore, heighten vulnerability. Not all autistic individuals will opt to share their diagnosis; this is okay, but support can still be provided regardless of the depth of information shared.
  • Ask how you can help: autistic individuals succeed in environments where safety and security are provided. However, some are not entirely comfortable in seeking support in fear of judgement. In general, autistic individuals like to be independent and utilise it as a factor to appear engaged and hard working.
  • Delivering information and instructions: autistic individuals commonly experience auditory processing delays, which can provide additional challenges in relation to receiving and interpreting verbal information. Ensure that information is issued in small amounts to avoid information overload, and consider issuing written-down information and instructions if possible. Breaking down tasks and providing one, or a couple, at a time can assist with this.
  • Tour around farm and introduction to staff: autistic individuals generally experience anxiety when in a new, unfamiliar environment. Tours and introductions can assist with becoming accustomed to the workplace. It is recommended to ask whether the person prefers one to one or group introductions.

Have confidence in autistic vet students and their abilities, knowledge, and skills, which may include strong attention to detail; dedication and commitment; organisational skills; time-management skills; problem-solving skills; and new skills and insights.

Additional information is available via the National Autistic Society at autism.org.uk