Piecing together the autism puzzle in veterinary practice
When clients start apologizing for their pets’ behavior at the clinic, Elizabeth Share, DVM, DABVP, stops them.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, he never bites or she never shakes like this at home,’” says Share, owner of Stateline Animal Clinic in Southaven, Miss. “I explain that the pets are just nervous. Their adrenaline is going and they’re not in their natural environment. I feel like I’m really attuned to this being in the autism world.”
Share’s 14-year-old son, David, has Asperger syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum, and her husband is also an “Aspy,” as she calls it. So Share knows all too well what it’s like having to defend your loved ones in public. She knows autistic people are often misunderstood and called “retarded” and “stupid.” She knows about the stares at the grocery stores and the judgmental whispers: “That kid needs a good old-fashioned spanking.” But just like smacking animals for acting up or rubbing their noses in poop after an accident won’t do any good, hitting an autistic child only makes things worse, Share says.
She explains how autism is a neurologic disorder—not a behavior disorder—and the inappropriate behavior comes from the nervous system not processing stimuli normally. This is often described as a traffic jam in the brain, Share says.
“People with autism don’t want to act inappropriately, they just don’t intuitively know what is appropriate,” Share says. “There are actually a lot of correlations between working with pets and working with autism.” She says you can’t yell at your dog to “Stay!” and expect her to know what you mean the very first time. You need to say, “Sit,” then “Stay,” then offer a treat to reinforce the good behavior. The same goes for working with an autistic child, Share says. If you tell him to pick up a cup, he may know what a cup is and how to pick something up, but he’ll just stare at you because his brain can’t make the connection.
“You can’t assume children with autism know anything. You have to break everything down into steps, and then once they learn how to do it that way, they can start doing it on their own,” Share says. “It’s kind of like training a pet.”
Share says her exposure to autism has made her a better clinician. Now she’s even more sympathetic to pets when they come in to the clinic, because she understands how hard it is for them to be in a situation where they’re out of their element.
“If you’re studying for an exam and you’re put in the middle of a rock concert, you’re not going to learn,” Share says. “That’s how people with autism are. They can’t filter distractions.”
Share’s love for her autistic child is readily apparent in her practice. Two years ago the clinic celebrated Autism Awareness Month, but now the team promotes autism awareness every day. Books such as All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome and All Dogs Have ADHD, both by Kathy Hoopmann (Jessica Kingsley Pub), can be found in the waiting room. A blue wreath decorated with puzzle pieces—symbols that reflect the mystery and complexity of autism—hangs above the reception desk. Every Friday employees wear blue jeans and an autism-themed T-shirt. The clinic’s logo is a dog and cat playing with puzzle pieces. All of these different elements spark conversations about autism, which is exactly what Share intended.
“We’re known as the ‘autism clinic’ and I’m not shy talking about it,” Share says. “Clients will say, ‘Oh! My best friend’s sister has autism,’ or, ‘My grandchild is autistic.’”
She says it’s a way to connect with clients and cultivate the staff-pet-owner bond and, despite what some people think, veterinarians don’t have to be advocates just for animal-related causes. Share says many people expect veterinarians to help dog and cat rescue organizations, and while she does provide low-cost veterinary services to these groups, it’s not her passion like autism is. She encourages other veterinarians to adopt a cause they care about and run with it—hold fundraisers, organize picnics, dye your hair blue (which is precisely what Share did once her clinic’s Facebook page reached 400 likes).
“If you know a person with any disability—Down syndrome, wheelchair-bound, deaf, elderly—let people in the community see that you’re comfortable with it,” Share says. “It can’t hurt business, but it’s more about the fact that we’re all here on this earth together—we better learn how to get along.”