Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist based in the UK covering disability and social justice issues. Her work has appeared in places such as The Independent, The Metro, Refinery 29 and PosAbility Magazine. She is also an ambassador for AccessAble, the author of The Autism Friendly Cookbook and also acts as a podcast editor and speaker.
April 27, 2023 (Updated )
In the last couple of years, there has been a vital push for diversifying newsrooms. Publications are increasingly recognising the need for a wide range of staff and writers to bring in varied voices and opinions, whether it be related to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. However, a lack of neurodiversity is yet to be tackled.
A 2021 report by Hidden Disabilities, the group behind the Sunflower Lanyard Scheme, found that only 22 percent of Autistic adults are in any kind of employment. It’s the lowest-employed disability group overall, and well below the 81 percent of non-disabled people who are in some kind of work.
In my experience as a diagnosed Autistic adult with suspected dyscalculia, only one newsroom has ever adapted to my needs. Sadly, the open hostility found in organisations that pride themselves on being “diverse” is not surprising. The industry must urgently consider how adapting to neurodivergent employees can look in a newsroom, what it means for journalists, and how editors can improve inclusion and accessibility.
What Is Neurodiversity?
In short, neurodiversity refers to the different ways our brains process information, but is most commonly used in reference to conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia. These are recognised as a ‘disability’ in UK legislation, however, individuals may prefer to be described as neurodivergent, rather than disabled.
“Understanding neurodiversity as part of wider disability understanding is key,” explains freelance journalist Isla Whateley, who is autistic and also has suspected ADHD. “It is a specific kind of disability that needs to be acknowledged and supported, but not at the expense of other disabilities.”
As they fit the legal definition of a disability, neurodiverse conditions fall under the Equality Act 2010. This means that employers are legally bound to make reasonable adjustments to the conditions in question. As Ebony Montague, founder of inclusive HR agency HR Said That, previously told Journo Resources, this could include things like flexible working arrangements, adjustments to things like lighting and noise, or extra time for completing tasks.
“Working from home is usually best for me as I can tailor my environment to fit my needs, and there is no way I’d be able to get a job that would give me my own office,” notes Whateley. “That said, I do like the social environment of an office or newsroom, as long as it is on my terms — which it often isn’t!”
Montague adds that it’s essential for employers to “create and ensure a psychologically safe environment for employees to share their needs”. She emphasises that the most important part of this process is that “anything that is raised is welcomed and without retribution.”
However, while this may be the case on paper, it’s not always put into practice. Ask anyone who is on the autistic spectrum, and you will find plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding negative experiences.
Amy Arthur is self-diagnosed Autistic, and currently freelances for outlets including BBC Science Focus. She tells me that some previous experiences in newsrooms were “not good”, leaving her feeling “constantly overwhelmed, and a little shocked, at how people acted and talked”.
She continues: “The publication encouraged writers to hunt for stories on social media or with local police. There was a pushiness that I really couldn’t get on board with. I realise now that I had to unlearn a lot of the scripts and techniques I learnt as a teen. I tried not to be blunt or too forward.
“I [tend] to feel a lot more emotion when hearing about others’ misfortune than some neurotypical people do. Still, it was almost like I had to be completely the opposite, and it really confused me.”
Thankfully, Arthur adds that she loves her current role and is now fully accommodated when working.
Asking For Your Rights In The Newsroom
There isn’t a set way of asking for accommodations in individual newsrooms. Sometimes, organisations will have protocols in place but often, there isn’t.
It’s also worth noting that you are not obliged to disclose a diagnosis to your employer, although this can impact whether accommodations are made. I had previously chosen to share my diagnosis during an interview once — it was unfamiliar ground for the publication in question which, rather dishearteningly, had no guidance in-house.
Amy Arthur (L) and Hester Grainger (R). Image Credits: Twitter
When asked what her advice would be for journalists who want to ask for and access accommodations, Arthur says: “I would definitely recommend talking to someone from the Citizens Advice Bureau — they know the Equality Act better than you will, and will be able to give you advice for how to approach the subject, but also what types of accommodations you could request.
“It’s very hard to know what would help, or you might even think that there are no accommodations that would work for you, but if you’re disabled or neurodiverse it is definitely worth sitting down with someone, just in case there are small — or even free — things that your employer could put in place to help you work.”
While Arthur freely revealed that she has not had to argue for her work accommodations, which have been “very fair”, she also added that may be because they “make sense” — such as having rests for her hands and arms to address pain, as well as text-to-speech software to deal with the impact of brain fog.
She adds: “It has been harder to communicate the small non-physical changes, like how to explain my rest breaks or disjointed working hours to colleagues.”
Editors Must Play Their Part In Newsroom Accessibility
Recognising the shocking autism employment gap and having the desire to drive change is the first step. Awareness of the law and obligations around “reasonable adjustments” should be standard, and so should better hiring practices.
For example, I always know which interviews have been unsuccessful due to a lack of adjustments for neurodiverse workers. Equally, I have come across bosses who still believe in stereotypes — making assumptions that I “should communicate better” — when adjustments are simply not in place for anyone who is neurodivergent.
Creative Access has guidance on how to design inclusive job adverts, covering tone, skills, language, and more.
The BBC’s neurodiversity checklist offers a simple way to check how inclusive offices and buildings are.
Shape Arts also have useful resources on accessibility and the social model of disability.
“There is still so much misunderstanding around autism in society, and this extends into journalism,” Whateley adds. “Editors need to know that neurodiversity is just a different way of thinking and functioning. We have strengths and struggles that can be catered for.
“There are lots of neurodiverse journalists out there. It’s our passion and attention to detail that make us fantastic at the job. We should be supported and understood [as other people are].”
Arthur agrees, adding: “Don’t make assumptions about how other people work. It makes a big difference when my colleagues ask me, ‘What format would you like this in?’ or ‘Do you want me to set a deadline or for you to set one for yourself?’ It means they’ve understood that my situation might require different working patterns or styles to [theirs].
“I try to do the same for others too, whether they have told me they are Neurodivergent or disabled or not.”
For journalists struggling to find a supportive role, it’s also worth remembering that newsrooms are not the be-all and end-all of a career in journalism. In fact, freelancing carries the potential for added benefits.
To freelance means to manage your environment and to work at your own pace — this kind of freedom is less likely to be granted in a newsroom. As a result, many neurodivergent writers enjoy the freedom that freelancing gives them.
Hester Grainger, 43, is a contributor to BBC Radio Berkshire, the co-founder of Perfectly Autistic, and also writes freelance on parenting and neurodiversity. She was also recently diagnosed with ADHD.
“I simply ask [editors] about their deadlines so that I can manage expectations, rather than just assuming that everything is urgent,” she explains. “I also [personally] factor in extra time for each deadline, adding a buffer which gives me more flexibility.”
In the end, the workplace for a journalist should be a place of inspiration and creativity. Having the ability to find what is right for you is the best way forward, whatever that looks like.