Debbie Martin SVN

Autism and the veterinary professions

Debbie Martin SVN

I’m Debbie and I’m a second year SVN from Bath. I’m the owner of two cats, one of whom was born without a functioning pituitary gland and so has multiple conditions including pituitary dwarfism. She keeps me very busy with lots of medication and vet trips. Her team of vets and nurses at Bath Vet Group are the best! I love all things feline and have just gained a distinction in the ISFM Certificate in Feline Nursing. I also love wild swimming and can often be found swimming in the local lake! I’m passionate about diversity in the veterinary profession and so felt it was important to write this blog post to raise awareness of how the profession can be more welcoming and supportive.

Being autistic in a neurotypical world presents a number of challenges. Veterinary practices can be very loud, bright and hectic places that come with their own challenges for autistic individuals who work within them or who are clients. With a few simple adjustments, practices can become more accessible for autistic colleagues and clients.

I am currently a second-year student veterinary nurse. I have already faced huge amounts of stigma and discrimination within the profession due to being autistic. My ability to become a veterinary nurse has been questioned a number of times, based solely on my diagnosis. I have come close to quitting many times due to this. The reality, however, is that I have excelled in the theory side of my training, and have now proven that, with some adjustments in place, I can excel in the practical elements of the profession too.

When I am in ‘nurse mode,’ I can do anything that any other nurse can do. I can communicate well with clients, work well under pressure, and give the best nursing possible to the animals in my care. This does come at a cost though. I find ‘masking’ mentally exhausting. I become hypersensitive to the noises around me, to the bright lights in the practice, and can become overwhelmed. This is where practices can step in and support me. Simple adjustments to my working day can really help and prevent me from burning out. Allowing me to have a break mid-way through the day to re-energise without any interaction with other people really helps. An understanding that, during my lunch break, I may want to sit in silence and not join in with social chit chat can be beneficial. This isn’t me being anti-social, but what I need to do to allow me to get through the day.

I struggle with changes to my routine and so letting me know about changes to practice policies or working hours in advance really helps me deal with these changes. I may also need to ask lots of questions in order to understand something new, especially when the instructions that I am given are vague or open to interpretation.

Being autistic can also be very useful in the veterinary profession. I can hyperfocus on what I am doing and will notice tiny changes that others may not notice. This is beneficial when monitoring an anaesthetic for example. I can retain huge amounts of factual information, such as anatomy and physiology, and I excel at maths (my first degree is in maths) and calculations, which is useful when dealing with drugs. I also cannot cope with being late for anything and so will always be reliable and on time.

As well as being a student veterinary nurse, I am also the owner of two cats, one of whom has to regularly visit her referral vet who is based in a busy hospital. My cats are my life and I want to do the absolute best I can for them. Vet visits however can be very stressful for both myself and them. Appointments often run late due to the nature of the job, and can seem rushed, with lots of information and instructions given to the client in a short amount of time. This can be overwhelming for an autistic client.

The practice that my cats attend is fantastic. They know that I am autistic and make adjustments for me. If the vet is running late, the receptionists will keep me updated regularly. If I started to struggle with sensory overload in the busy waiting room (pre-covid), they would let me wait in an empty consult room or in the car until the vet was ready. They also understand that I can struggle with lengthy verbal instructions and so they are more than happy for me to have an email conversation with them after the appointment to confirm what was said and for me to ask any questions that I have. They also understand that sometimes I find phone calls challenging, and so they let me book appointments and order medication by email. These simple adjustments make a huge difference to me and make appointments accessible.

Autistic individuals are diligent owners and skilful colleagues, and with the right understanding and support can be a real asset to a veterinary practice.

  1. I. Borgmann
    I. Borgmann says:

    Hi Debbie and people from the Mind Matters Initiative. I am moved by your blog. I never met anybody with autism in veterinary practice as far as I know. I am a vet nurse myself and I wish to improve diversity in our profession. As I work and live currenly in the Netherlands I somtimes write an article for the Dutch veterinary nursing paper. I would love to translate your blog and get it printed in the paper (Vedias beroepsinfo). Would it be possible to get in touch?
    Best wishes, Ingrid Borgmann

  2. Mai Cooper
    Mai Cooper says:

    Hi Debbie & Ingrid
    I was also really moved by this article. I have been researching the veterinary profession for the son of a friend who is also autistic and for whom it would be a dream to be a part of. I also have an autistic 2 year old and am determined that neither of these wonderful kids should be limited by their unique ways of thinking.

    Could either of you offer me a steer in building a roadmap for my friend’s son? I would really like to show him that it can be done, and to give him practical help on planning for the future he desperately wants.

    Many thanks,

  3. Claire White
    Claire White says:

    Thanks for highlighting the difficulties that neuro diverse people have working in practice. I was diagnosed later in life, just last year, aged 42. I hadn’t heard of autism until I had my son, and started learning about it when it became obvious that there were issues. Realising that I was also autistic made a huge difference to me and finally I understood why I had so much difficulty with certain things. I now try and avoid situations that I know I’ll find too stressful and my employers are really supportive.
    Good luck with your studies! Xx

  4. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:


    I’m female, nearly 40, and a veterinarian who’s starting to wonder if a lot of my difficulties with practice (and life in general!) could be down to undiagnosed autism.

    I’m in the process of seeking a formal assessment, so at the moment that’s really just a suspicion!

    I’m really interested in this article, and the research I saw has just been funded by mindmatters into autism in the vet profession.

    It seems to me that the profession has both a lot of aspects that might appeal to an autistic individual (animals, lots of technical information to nerd-out on, quite independent working styles for the most part) as well as a lot of challenges for autistic individuals once we reach the work-force (stupidly long often unpredictable hours, loud, smelly and brightly lit environments, endless human-interaction), as this author mentions.

    Because the profession is so female-dominated, that also presents a significant risk-factor for autistic individuals in the profession not having received a diagnosis early in life. This is due to the historically much lower diagnosis rates of autistic girls relative to autistic boys.

    I graduated 10 years ago and I am DONE with veterinary for a number of reasons. I can’t deal with the sensory stimuli in clinical practice, and I feel ethically compromised by the many exploitative ways our society uses animals. (Interestingly, one of the diagnostic criteria for autism seems to be “a strong sense of right and wrong”… And there was me thinking that was a virtue rather than a symptom!)

    I would strongly recommend anyone with any sense to steer clear of the profession, but especially anyone else who’s prone to sensory-overload, meltdowns and the like. I’d come to think the profession isn’t a great environment for humans. Maybe it’s just not a great place for autistic humans?

    Certainly, high levels of undiagnosed-autism could be a factor in the HUGE attrition-rate from the profession.

    I’d like to suggest that any interventions that might make veterinary practice environments less stressful for autistic individuals might actually make the environment less stressful for everybody… And surely THAT can only be a good thing?

  5. Alexandria
    Alexandria says:

    I am so thrilled to see other autistics being more open about their diagnosis in professional fields.

    I currently work as an ER Veterinary Nurse and the most recent hospital has been so supportive and kind to the point where I don’t have to mask as much and can still openly stim.

    I love being autistic in this field because of how meticulous we are.

    Thank you for sharing your story!


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