Inside the mind of an autistic journalist

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“If you’re autistic, why on earth did you become a journalist?”

I imagine this is the kind of question that a journalist or reporter on the spectrum who has been in any way open about having autism has faced throughout their career, and I can understand why. It is a career which, on paper, goes against everything we know. For most of us, this means we have to constantly tip-toe around the conventions of social interaction – conventions which never take into account how we interact with or register the world around us.

However, this has not been my experience. I only say this because I feel my approach towards starting my career in journalism has been somewhat unconventional, even for someone who is on the spectrum. Namely, I place myself in a ‘neurotypical’ perspective. A ‘neurotypical’ is someone who interacts with people according to the social conventions laid out by society. I personally disagree that it should be a blanket term which describes anyone who has an intellectual or developmental difference, or that neurotypical thinkers are considered to be “normal people”. It reinforces the concept of normality and describing most people as “normal” inherently implies there is little we can learn about and from other people.

This, in part, goes against what I believe the role of a journalist is: to try and perceive things from someone else’s point of view as much as possible, in order to uphold objectivity. For myself, this means I often have to look at the world as someone ‘neurotypical’, which my mind and that of other people on the spectrum is not naturally wired to do. To preface the rest of this article for those who may not be aware of how the autistic mind works, I can sometimes be unaware of social cues and my surroundings, such as sarcasm and body language. Nowadays, this is pretty rare for me.

Another way in which autistic minds work is fixating on a subject or avenue of interest. Once they do, they will not let go for any reason, creating a compulsive drive. I have several, and the one that applies most to my career of choice is a restless craving to understand the world, and people in general, better – no matter the context, subject, or if it is relevant to myself.

This notion of wanting to understand the world started when I was around 18. At the time, I was writing essays and poetry for English class with the specific aim of reflecting on and grasping my own experiences better, and how they connect to the world around me. I came to realise the importance of recognising how society is structured to favour the way a ‘neurotypical’ thinks and acts, in order for me to excel in my career.

I am probably not the only journalist on the spectrum who has had this thought, or the fear of not being taken seriously. Simply trying to place myself in the perspective of a ‘neurotypical’ is not the only factor at play. Oddly, I found that easy. The hardest thing for me was trying to grapple with the fear of not being a competent journalist. Would I be taken less seriously simply because I am autistic?

These thoughts led me to spend my entire adult life concealing the fact that I am autistic from almost everyone I have befriended or worked with. I only ever referenced it to those closest to me from childhood. However, I do feel that keeping a fundamental part of my identity private was ultimately of great benefit. I was enabled to often place myself in situations which would be inherently uncomfortable for someone on the spectrum, in both my professional and social life.

It gave me the freedom I felt I needed to develop my interests in audio and video production, as well as radio engineering and presenting, without having to feel insecure about myself. But it did come with the double-edged sword of not being completely true to myself throughout the five years I spent training to become a qualified journalist. To be frank, I do feel that perhaps I should have been open about it to some people I met while I was in university, so I could have had someone to relay my innermost thoughts to.

I try not to dwell on it too much though, as I know that I did not feel comfortable to talk about it with anyone at the time. Even now, I still feel that way. The thought of being so open about such a key part of my identity, quite frankly, frightens me. However, as a journalist, I have an obligation to amplify the voices of those who lack the means to do it themselves, even if it means writing about a topic so personal.

If I were to advise those on the spectrum pursuing a career in journalism or the media, or anyone on the spectrum in general, it would be to place yourself in situations where you do not feel comfortable as often as possible, professional, social or otherwise. It will be extremely difficult to get through initially, but it can be very beneficial to have that experience of dealing with people when the time comes for that one interview or report which could define your career.

Also, find ways to reflect on your experiences with the world, whether it be writing them down, recording voice notes to listen back on, or sitting down and talking to someone you trust about your thoughts. Having a vehicle to process your interactions and experiences with others can go such a long way in ensuring your future experiences are all the more fulfilling.

Article by Adam Gibbons