The autistic vet who proved her doubters wrong

Ever since she was a child, Dr Kiah Hann had wanted to become a vet but was told her various health conditions would prevent her from realising her goal. Now six years into the job, she explains how she proved the doubters wrong, and why her autism has proven to be a strength in her dream line of work.

"Sometimes owners are a little surprised to see a vet in a wheelchair," says Dr Kiah Hann.

"Usually they'll say something like: 'Good for you!'" 

The 29-year-old is a hit with animals and owners alike at Swanbridge Veterinary Hospital in North Ferriby, East Yorkshire. Using her brightly decorated wheelchair, she is supported by an assistant who occasionally helps her to handle the more lively patients.

As a child, she was diagnosed with dyspraxia and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, both of which affect her mobility. She was later diagnosed with functional neurological disorder (FND) - the name given to symptoms in the body which appear to be caused by problems in the nervous system. 

"Aged six, I wanted to be a hairdresser," she says. "Not because I wanted to cut people's hair but because I saw that these people appeared to be happy and have no social struggles. Hairdressers seemed, to me, to be able to chat happily to people. I couldn't do that.

"I thought to myself if I became a hairdresser the same would magically apply to me. Aged 10 or 11, I realised that's not how it works. 

"Since I loved animals I thought I'd try to become a vet."

Dr Hann soon found that others did not share her dream.

"A lot of people - teachers and some family members included - told me, 'You won't be able to do that'," she says.

"But if anything that made me more determined to prove them wrong. Nothing was going to stop me. I had to work for it but I got there."

Dr Hann, who lives with husband Richard near Scunthorpe, qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2016. At age 27, she was further diagnosed with autism.

"Suddenly everything made sense," she says. "I understood why I felt as I did."

She believes her autism has helped in her job, and says it means she wastes no times in getting to the crux of problems.

"I think patients' owners quite like that I don't sugar-coat," she says. "I obviously try to deliver things sensitively but similarly I don't beat around the bush as some vets might." 

"I am just not very good with people," she says. "But seeing me doing my job, that doesn't necessarily come across because I am so animated around the patients." 

"I have been accused of being a witch before because of my interaction with the patients." says Dr Hann. "Often animals will come with all kinds of warnings but I'll just open the carrier and see what happens. Usually within a few moments they're on their backs wanting to be petted."

"I absolutely love being a vet," she continues.

"It combines my passion for animals and medicine. I really like the medicine side. I call it 'Sherlock work' because veterinary medicine is like solving a puzzle, which of course appeals to my autistic side."

The National Autistic Society said many people with the condition would "see a lot of themselves in her experiences, such as not being diagnosed until adulthood. 

"Not all autistic people are able to work, but many are desperate to find a job that reflects their talent and interests and, like Dr Hann, they have a huge amount to offer employers," a spokeswoman said.

Nanette Mellor, chief executive of The Brain Charity, agreed, and said supporting neurodivergent people to achieve their potential in the workplace and creating a disability-friendly environment opens up "a wider talent pool of individuals like Dr Kiah who often possess highly desirable workplace skills, such as high intellectual ability, strong levels of concentration, detailed factual and technical knowledge, an excellent memory and attention to detail."

Alison Kerry, head of communications at disability equality charity Scope, said: "Too often we hear from disabled people who were told they would not be able to achieve their goals because of their disability. This outdated attitude and misperception couldn't be further from the truth." 

Dr Hann is currently off work recovering from spinal surgery but hopes to return in June. In the meantime, she hopes her story will inspire others.

"There is a whole bunch of jobs that I know I could not realistically do," she says. "My best advice is this: find your niche and go for it."