Celebrating neurodiversity in veterinary teams
Erika Lin-Hendel, VMD, PhD, encourages veterinary professionals to lean into the education and understanding of accessibility for neurodiversity
There is a lot of misinformation about the word neurodiversity, what it can mean and how it can present itself in individuals, according to Erika Lin-Hendel, VMD, PhD. “What comes to mind when you hear the word neurodiversity?” Lin-Hendel asked attendees at the session they presented at the 2022 Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
This question is where they began the discussion surrounding neurodiversity and how to celebrate it in veterinary medicine. The session titled, “Equity: Expand Your Perception: Celebrating and Empowering Neurodiverse Teams”1 was a part of the BLEND track at the conference in which presenters focused on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Lin-Hendel defined neurodiversity as, “a descriptor for the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits…this is a normal variation of the human mind.” They emphasized that being neurodiverse is still a normal variation of the brain, even if it functions differently from one person to the next. One piece of misinformation that surrounds neurodiversity is that these variations are “disorders” like autism or ADHD. Lin-Hendel stated, "Rather than thinking that there is something wrong or incorrect when people don't operate similarly to others, neurodiversity embraces all differences…So our brains and the way we operate, the way we take in information and process information, are going to be different.”
In terms of veterinary medicine, Lin-Hendel explained that sometimes neurodiverse veterinary professionals have a difficult time deciding whether to disclose these differences at work because of stigmas or biases that may surround it, as well as a need to feel accepted and safe at work.
Lin-Hendel used their personal experience as an example of how intimidating it can be to disclose neurodiversity at work. “So, I am an Asian-American, fem-bodied person. When I'm frank and honest and direct in my communication, it very frequently (depending on the situation) doesn't go well. It can even be worse if I disclose that I'm autistic. So, it's one of those things where I have learned how to navigate social situations as a matter of survival and being able to keep my job. And that is the tricky thing about unconscious bias,” they said.
Lin-Hendel hoped to teach attendees to move away from harmful/hurtful language and instead use celebratory and empowering language when working with neurodiverse colleagues. As an example, Lin-Hendel said, “Instead of saying, something's wrong with you because you can't get your paperwork done in time, you have this pile of unfinished records, right? Maybe the conversation [could] be, ‘why isn't this system working well? What could we be doing better to facilitate records getting done?’” Instead of using accusatory language, taking a look at the functionality of the system can often solve more issues. Does the system only focus on accommodations for neurodiverse individuals or is it accessible for all employees regardless of neuro-functionality?
Lin-Hendel told attendees that they are also dyslexic. “People with dyslexia have enhanced abilities in creativity. But what it means is that sometimes I make spelling mistakes, or the words are switched, or the letters are switched. And when people are like, ‘Oh, you have typos.’ We all have typos…My ability to not flip letters sometimes is not a measure of my abilities as a clinician. Because I'm not spelling things perfectly, doesn't mean that I'm not an excellent doctor,” they explained.
Lin-Hendel encouraged attendees to shift their conversations to ones that are uplifting and highlight gifts and strengths instead of focusing on the negatives. They advised reframing how individuals think of neurodiversity: instead of focusing on how dyslexia can come with different needs around writing and reading, we can shift to be curious about how creativity can improve an area of the clinic.
“The general hope and aspiration that I have when I walk into the room and I'm talking about this type of work with leadership is shifting from pathologizing to celebrating [and] recognizing the special abilities that we all have,” Lin-Hendel said.
Lin-Hendel, E. Equity: Expand your perception: Celebrating and empowering neurodiverse teams. Presented at: Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference; October 10-12, 2022: Atlantic City, New Jersey.