"I believe my disability is my strength, and it makes me a better journalist," says Lydia Wilkins, a freelance journalist. "[My mentor] Harold Evans told me there is no shame in being obsessional as that is an asset, and that means you can get to the bottom of things."
Wilkins is autistic. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that is often misunderstood and stigmatised. Common autistic traits are increased sensory sensitivities, social and communication difficulties, highly focused interests or hobbies, difficulty managing change, and repetitive behaviours.
More and more people are getting diagnosed with autism, especially girls and women. A 2021 University of Exeter study found that the number of people with a diagnosis had jumped more than 20-fold between 1998 and 2018, particularly adult diagnoses, mostly because it is better understood.
Autism is often viewed as a deficit; the diagnostic criteria emphasise the things an autistic person cannot do, rather than what they excel at. So, what are the benefits of being an autistic journalist?
[Read more: How to report on neurodiversity]
While there are no studies specifically dedicated to autistic journalists, autistic academics Aimee Grant and Helen Kara published a study into the strengths of autistic researchers in 2021. They coined a strengths-based model, the Autistic Advantage, which emphasises the ways in which autistic people are assets to the structures they exist in.
Autistic brains have increased hyper-plasticity – higher levels of adaptability in the form of generating new neural pathways – which impacts creativity, learning and memory, allowing them to think outside the box. Autistic people also tend to be more direct and honest in their communication and have high loyalty and empathy, which are desirable traits in a multitude of situations. Many autistic people have great attention to detail and have detailed knowledge of topic areas that are of interest to them, often hyperfocusing (long periods of concentration) on them. This advantage can be seen in autistic journalists too.
Eric Garcia, senior Washington correspondent for the Independent, was diagnosed as a child. "I don't think I would be as myopic when it comes to zeroing in on a certain topic if I weren't autistic," he said. "What is a beat but a glorified interest?"
Wilkins adds that asking difficult, "socially unacceptable" questions is easier for the autistic journalist too. She often asks questions others "wouldn’t dare" and is good at tracing documents and people, due to hyperfocusing.
A member of The Neurodiverse Media Community, a Facebook group for neurodiverse people working in the media, said that being autistic gives them "a really good strategic but creative approach, meaning I connect with stories thoroughly and build genuine relationships with contributors." Another member, who has been a community reporter for 30 years, said that they have a knack for spotting big stories hidden in the little things others miss.
This sentiment was echoed by Drew Hyndman, a BBC Radio 4 researcher, who said diversity in way of thinking can "make or break" a newsroom. "My brain will always think of different questions to that of a neurotypical person," he said, "which can often bring interesting angles to stories."
Many disabled people have issues at work, and the journalism industry is no exception. It is common to be pigeonholed or treated differently if you disclose a disability, and according to Wilkins, "diversity is taken with a tick box approach" rather than anything more meaningful.
It can be hard to get reasonable adjustments, which should be offered from the interview and application process onwards. Disclosing a disability at this stage can make it harder rather than easier, due to stigma and stereotypes, especially around autism.
So what can employers, editors and colleagues do to help autistic journalists flourish?
Communication is key. Be direct, do not speak in euphemisms, and give clear instructions. According to Hyndman, it can be common in journalism that instructions, expectations and deadlines are assumed. A colleague taking extra steps to make things clearer “will reap so many rewards in a hardworking journalist with different ideas and a way of thinking,” he said. Supplement verbal communication with written, for example, circulating an agenda prior to a meeting.
One of the most important points is to treat what the autistic person says seriously, even if their issues and concerns do not match up with your prior knowledge of autism. Autistic people are experts of their own neurology – ask them about their communication and sensory needs, and meet them where possible. Be transparent and cooperative. Requests made by an autistic person may feel like something that is 'nice to have' to a neurotypical person, but they are likely to be truly necessary for an autistic person to work to the best of their ability.
Do not assume that someone is less capable if they are autistic – their brain works differently, yes, but they are not lesser or "worse" at doing the job. Do not infantilise them or stand over them like a headteacher, but instead be open if they need help or more time to complete tasks.
An employer must implement any reasonable adjustments for disabilities according to the Equality Act (2010). Occupational health staff are unlikely to be experts in autism or neurodiversity, but there are organisations with that expertise who can provide bespoke workplace assessments. Access to Work assessments and support are available to anyone with a diagnosed disability. If adjustments are removed, or not working properly, autistic people are likely to be less productive or may use more energy to compensate, putting them at risk of autistic burnout.
If you are an editor, do not expect neurodiverse people to work for free, and do not commission them just because they are autistic and it will make your publication look good. Tokenism is a huge problem for disabled journalists and adds to them being pigeonholed into the disability niche. On the flip side, do not assume they are not up to the job if they are open about their condition. Autistic journalists have a lot of strengths that can be an asset to any newsroom or editorial team.