Credit: MissLunaRose12 via Creative Commons

Neurodiversity is a relatively recent term to describe how people experience the world around them differently, depending on variations in their brains. This covers social skills, learning, attention, mood and more.

This umbrella term is often used for several related medical diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and tic disorders. According to the Local Government Association, around one in seven people in the UK have one of these conditions and are thus neurodivergent.

The National Autistic Society estimates that there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK; the NHS reports around one in 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. Statistics are scarcer for ADHD: some research suggests that it could be affecting around 5 per cent of populations globally.

Neurodiversity is becoming more widely discussed in the media as research progresses and more individuals seek a diagnosis.

Tom Purser, head of volunteering, guidance and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, said: "Whilst awareness of autism has really gone up in recent years and almost everyone has heard of autism, still not enough people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic.

"The media has a big role in shaping how autism and autistic people are viewed by the public. It’s so important to get this right, which is why we and many autistic adults and families put a lot of effort into working with journalists."

Choose the right words

Never assume that people who read your articles understand neurodiverse conditions or how they affect those diagnosed. Explaining each condition will help you report correctly and avoid making assumptions.

Eleanor Noyce is a journalist diagnosed with ADHD, which she often covers in her reporting to help dismantle misconceptions, hoping to help people understand this condition.

"Make sure that you've rigorously explained what ADHD is - acknowledge symptoms and how it can manifest itself," she advises. "Always acknowledge the nuances and differences between women and men with ADHD. It's really underdiagnosed in women, which is why I write about it so much."

Dr Khalid Karim, NHS consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, has extensive experience with child mental health and neurodiversity. He told "This area of practice is incredibly complicated, and the terminologies change fairly rapidly. People have different views on the conditions and whether they’re disabilities or not."

Though researching the correct medical terms for the conditions you are covering is crucial, diagnosed individuals use a range of terms to describe their condition and themselves. Some may not be comfortable with the term ‘neurodiverse’, whilst for others, it may be the only term they approve of. If you are interviewing someone about their neurodiversity, Karim advises to ask them how they like to refer to themselves, and how they define their condition.

Noyce agrees and adds: "If you use certain terminology, editors might ask ‘Can you explain what this terminology means?’ I've never had an editor change terms or use something that I wasn't comfortable with."

Interviewing neurodiverse individuals

It is important to remember that what makes a good interview with a person who is not neurodivergent will not always translate well. Journalists must ensure that neurodiverse interviewees are happy with how they are being interviewed, though you should also never assume that they have special requirements. 

"You make it person-centred, and they dictate how they want to do it," advises Karim.

"I like to create a comfortable environment - think about the setting you're in. Zoom is interesting because some people don't like eye contact - they could sit off-camera. Some people’s auditory processing is slow, they may not have had time to process the answers - give them the time to process it."

Nicholas Fearn is an autistic freelance technology journalist and he covers the experiences of neurodiverse IT professionals.

"Because I'm autistic, I tend to do interviews via email," he says.

"This would be the preferred option for many people with autism as they might struggle with social skills. But what's important to understand is that autism is a spectrum, and everyone is different. So, when it comes to interviewing neurodiverse people, it's important to ensure they're comfortable with the interview method and topics."

Tom Purser agrees and adds: "The most authentic and compelling stories are those that involve autistic people and families directly and allow them to talk about their experiences. This may require being ready to make reasonable adjustments, like providing plenty of notice for requests or offering a briefing call or email with rough talking points prior to an interview. Every autistic person is different, so it’s about getting to know them and asking if they need any additional support."

Avoid stereotypes and ‘policing’ diagnoses

The National Autistic Society has a dedicated page explaining how to talk and write about autism. Some of the tips may apply to other neurodiverse conditions.

"Make sure that the language you use is appropriate," says Karim. This includes avoiding using slurs or derogatory terms but also stereotypes about neurodiversity or how it affects individuals.

Noyce adds: "Mostly my ADHD pieces have a personal hook, but it's not just my experiences throughout. I tie into a broader theme with statistics and case studies. That's how I avoid generalisations."

Consider whether you need to mention a person’s neurodiversity at all. It may not be relevant, especially if you are not writing about neurodiversity, or if the person told you in confidence. Unnecessarily including diagnoses may play into negative stereotypes.

If your work is specifically about neurodiversity, you may feel uncomfortable asking if someone has been diagnosed or not. Noyce advises: "I do often ask about people's diagnosis - if they could tell me about their ADHD journey. I've never policed people if they don’t actually have their diagnosis yet. If you have case studies that haven't been diagnosed, just make that clear in the article."

The only exception to vetting interviewees is for specialist opinions you may need. If you are putting out a #journorequest for a psychiatrist, medical or any other kind of professional, double-check the expert's credentials.

Personal experience

For many journalists, reporting on neurodiversity stems from their own lived experience or diagnosis. Fearn said he has always been honest about his experiences with autism, OCD and anxiety disorders.

"I'm proud to be neurodiverse, and I love having the opportunity to write about my conditions. It's therapeutic and helps to spread awareness of neurodiversity."

Publications have a duty of care towards their journalists, but editors may push for more sensationalism to drive attention. As a consequence, journalists - especially those early in their careers - may feel pressured to share more details of personal experiences than they are comfortable with.

Noyce urges journalists to speak up if they feel uncomfortable with unnecessary edits and questions. She avoids being put in this situation by picking the editors that she knows are going to handle a piece sensitively.

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