BLOG: Clinical EMS for neurodiverse students
Advice from Emily Moore, a veterinary student at The University of Glasgow who completed two weeks of clinical EMS at Vets4Pets Bearsden.
Emily Moore is a fourth-year veterinary student at The University of Glasgow. She was awarded one of our EMS bursaries in 2022 when the scheme, which was the first large-scale programme to be introduced by a veterinary employer, was launched. She completed two weeks of clinical EMS at Vets4Pets Bearsden, which inspired her to share her advice for neurodiverse students and clinicians.
‘Neurodiverse’ is an umbrella term that describes people who process, learn, or socialise in ways that are different from what is considered ‘typical’. Autism, ADHD, and dyslexia are just a few things that fall under this umbrella. Every neurodiverse student will have different strengths and abilities, but some examples of what could be challenging include interpreting social cues, focusing on a task, and processing stimuli.
Neurodiverse people often feel they have to work harder to ‘fit in’, which is called masking. Masking can be extremely tiring, which adds a layer of difficulty on long days of placement. At the core of supporting neurodiverse students is accepting that every person thinks, learns, and processes in different ways and we should work to treat them all with kindness, consideration, and patience regardless of if they are neurodiverse or neurotypical.
For neurodiverse students, it can be intimidating to enter the clinical world. There is a set of social expectations and rules that we aren’t yet accustomed to, and it feels like a lot is at stake. I would describe it to a neurotypical person like this: you’re starring as the lead in a play, but you don’t know the script at all. Which is just about as intimidating as it sounds. While some things may be challenging for some neurodiverse people, there are also things that can make the clinical EMS experience less daunting.
Advice for Neurodiverse Students:
1. Communicate, if you are comfortable
While this can be difficult, it helps to communicate with the practice team and tell them a bit about yourself and what may be challenging, so they know how best to support you. For example: “I will do my best to anticipate what I can do to help out, but it is sometimes hard for me to read the social cues, so please feel free to tell me what to do, that is how I learn the best.”
2. Find small moments for yourself
The social demands of placements can be exhausting, so take whatever time you can find for yourself. I often end up taking my lunch and going for a walk or taking it to my car to eat. If that isn’t an option, then just popping to the bathroom for some deep breaths can be just as helpful. Small moments of solitude where I can drop my mask really helps recharge my battery.
3. Understand the social expectations of a practice
Prior to my first clinical placement, I had no idea what to expect from the social workings of a practice. Instead of going in blind, I asked other veterinary students what their experiences had been like to find out what is expected, as well as what to expect from veterinary surgeons and nurses.
4. Don’t take things personally
Nurses and veterinary surgeons are BUSY, and sometimes vet students can get a little bit lost in the mix. Try your best to keep up, but don’t take it personally if you feel like no one is paying attention to you, or you don’t get the response you were hoping for.
5. Play to your strengths, but also challenge yourself
If you dread client-facing interactions, but your surgical skills are good, then try to stick to the surgical area in the beginning to boost your confidence. Once you feel more confident, you can start to challenge yourself in the areas outside of your comfort zone.
6. Know that it is okay to leave
Some placements and clinicians just aren’t a good match for every student, and that's okay. If you feel like you aren’t getting what you wanted out of the placement, then it is okay to politely end the placement.
You may have challenging placements, but you will also have plenty of wonderful and supportive experiences. Remember that just because you may have different challenges or additional support needs, you deserve respect and to meet your goals.
Advice for Clinicians
1. Understand that neurodiverse students may have different needs than other students
Neurodiverse students may find different things challenging. Every student will have different challenges, which could include processing a lot of information at once, recalling information quickly, reading social cues, or handling external stimuli. As a result, they may adjust things so that they can feel more comfortable in their surroundings.
For example, some of my adjustments (when appropriate) include ear plugs to dampen loud noise, fidgeting and humming. Some of these may be unexpected to people who aren’t used to them, but they are how I self-regulate and focus.
2. Set clear expectations
Take just a few minutes when a student arrives to explain your expectations of them and what they will be able to do. Ask what we want to get from the placement and get on the same page about what the student can accomplish while they are there.
A brilliant part of Vets4Pets EMS scheme was that they asked me to fill out a form that listed clinical skills rating my comfort and interest in each. The purpose was to gauge which ones they could help me work on. Incorporating something similar into your practice is an easy and fantastic way to help your students achieve their goals.
3. Communicate directly and clearly
One challenge that some neurodiverse people may experience is receiving and processing social cues. I have sometimes been left trying to decipher social interactions and feeling confused about whether I understood properly. Avoid using sarcasm and extensive metaphors and say what you mean clearly.
4. Give clear signals on when we should or should not do something
I often find myself confused about whether I should join the veterinary surgeon or nurses on a specific task or consult. Giving a clear social cue to your student can be very helpful. For example, saying
“You can come and watch this surgery”, or “this appointment is a Put To Sleep (PTS), so it is best to stay out here.”
5. Show us and tell us what to do!
While I do my best to anticipate what I can do to help around the practice in downtime, it can be hard when you aren’t yet accustomed to where everything goes and how things are done.
I can’t describe the relief of being told what to do when I am unsure of what to do next, and it saves me from asking if anyone needs help for the 100th time that day. If you aren’t sure either, give them a book and tell them to read up on a condition you saw that day, then discuss it together.
6. Don’t make assumptions
No two neurodiverse people will have the same abilities or support needs. If in doubt, find out how you can best support them by asking specifically what helps them in their day-to-day life, and see if you can adjust anything.
Most of all, don’t underestimate someone’s abilities just because they are neurodiverse. We all have our own challenges, but we also all have our own unique strengths and skills.
These tips can be applied to most students, neurotypical or neurodiverse. The best thing you can do for all students is to meet them all with understanding and respect. There may be students that you meet (and have probably already met), that you won’t realise are neurodiverse. Just because their challenges are masked, they are still there. Implementing better communication helps all students, but also makes things more comfortable for the ones with hidden challenges and needs.
This year, we’ve doubled our investment in our EMS bursary scheme and will invest more than £80,000 to help more veterinary students with their clinical EMS.
Applications are open until Sunday 26th March for placements beginning in June. For more information, visit: www.vets4petscareers.com/extra-mural-studies/.