AVMA Convention 2024 Daily News Monday

Difference, not disability: Supporting neurodivergent veterinary team members

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If veterinary teams can effectively recruit and retain neurodivergent employees and highlight their strengths, then the whole workplace will benefit, said Dr. Debra J. Nickelson, founder of Trillium C, a consulting firm for veterinarians.

Dr. Nickelson along with Dr. Erika G. Hendel, founder of Empathy at Large consulting and member of the Not One More Vet board of directors, presented the session “Recruitment and Retention: Neurodiverse Individuals Are Valuable Members of the Veterinary Team” on Saturday at AVMA Convention 2024 in Austin, Texas.

Neurodiversity, or differences in brain function and cognition, is a spectrum encompassing conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and autism. Many individuals who are neurodivergent have unique abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Awareness of such differences and the provision of reasonable accommodations are integral to helping neurodiverse professionals excel to their full potential.

Neurodiversity illustration showing people with different mindsets or psychological features
A helpful approach to supporting neurodivergent veterinary team members is expressing curiosity, compassion, and understanding, says Dr. Erika G. Hendel, founder of Empathy at Large. Drs. Hendel and Debra J. Nickelson presented the session, “Recruitment and Retention: Neurodiverse Individuals Are Valuable Members of the Veterinary Team” on Saturday at AVMA Convention 2024 in Austin, Texas.

“Ableism exists in our industry and can make it harder for neurodiverse individuals to thrive in our work,” Dr. Hendel said. The term refers to a system of discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities that favors nondisabled people. The idea that someone must be “fixed” is damaging to the neurodiverse community, Dr. Hendel said.

Recruiting neurodivergent employees takes intentionality.

“How are you approaching equitable recruitment in general?” asked Dr. Nickelson.

In job descriptions, including a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement; using inclusive language; and focusing on specific skills can all set the tone for how current and future team members view a veterinary practice.

Job applications can be challenging to complete for some neurodivergent individuals, so using clear instructions, an accessible font, adequate spacing between large text blocks, and a space for the applicant to share their personal pronouns is helpful, Dr. Nickelson said. Including clear timelines and steps for the application process can make applicants more comfortable.

When interviewing job applicants, managers are encouraged to offer a phone or video call option, share complex questions in advance, and ask open-ended behavioral questions instead of personal questions.

“Really consider how you can best communicate,” Dr. Nickelson said.

Using inclusive language, sharing personal pronouns, and mentioning a list of accommodations provided for all employees demonstrates an equitable workplace.

“Navigating onboarding while neurodiverse can be anxiety-inducing,” Dr. Hendel said. “Ask yourself, ‘Is the process clear? Can employees find information easily? Do they know who to go to if they have questions?’”

Dr. Hendel explained that sometimes veterinary professionals who are neurodivergent find it uncomfortable to disclose differences at work because of the stigmas that surround them. However, a discussion with the person is important to come up with reasonable adjustments that will work for them rather than generic adjustments based on a condition.

Expecting an employee to disclose a disability and request adjustments within a certain timeframe puts the burden on the individual.

“It’s not a very user-friendly collaboration,” Dr. Nickelson explained.

A supportive manager works with the employee to determine any helpful accommodations and regularly provides guidance. Feedback helps foster an ongoing conversation.

Examples of accommodations include adjustments to the workspace, flexible hours, modified job tasks, paid or unpaid leave, and intermittent family and medical leave.

Keeping an open dialogue is key to retaining neurodivergent employees.

“Check in with your team about the sensory environment because that is something that takes energy away from people,” Dr. Hendel said. Sources of excess sensory stimulation may include clutter, bright lights, loud noises, or strong scents.

Proactively providing safe spaces and opportunities to break from overstimulation is an effective way to support neurodivergent veterinary team members. Celebrating workplace culture, providing adequate time for tasks, and practicing active listening help create an encouraging environment.

“Neurodivergent individuals are incredibly loyal to spaces where they feel supported because often, they have not been supported in their veterinary or educational career before,” Dr. Hendel said.

Drs. Nickelson and Hendel are hosting a social mixer and community-building event for neurodivergent veterinary professionals at 5:30 p.m. today at the Hotel Driskill Bar in Austin, Texas.