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  1. Diversity
April 18, 2024

Freelance journalist Lydia Wilkins says autism strengths include attention to detail

Getting a staff job proved challenging for Lydia Wilkins but she has thrived as a freelance.

By Dominic Ponsford

Award-winning freelance journalist and author Lydia Wilkins was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (now simply known as autism or Autism Spectrum Condition) when she was 15.

Now 25, she also has dyspraxia (another form of neurodiversity) and is a long Covid patient. She spoke to Press Gazette as we published research into the prevalence of neurodiversity in news media.

Wilkins set out some of the challenges and strengths that come with being neurodivergent and warned that some media employers are failing in their legal duty to remove barriers for those with autism. You can listen to our full interview with Lydia Wilkins in the latest Press Gazette podcast.

She said: “I have no idea what facial expressions mean. That does not mean that I do not feel emotions. It’s the thing of not being able to put the expression to the appropriate emotion word, which makes reading people and situations very difficult which in order to be a journalist in the typical sense, it is something that you need.”

“If you’re going into an interview scenario, you need to be able to read if somebody’s cross, if they’re angry, if they’re sad, if they’re happy.”

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She said that impaired executive function creates challenges for her around sequencing tasks and juggling assignments and her particular sensory profile means: “I cannot process and I cannot filter noise particularly well, but I can also hear more of it.” This means that new environments can become overwhelming.

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Expectations for Lydia were low at the age 16. She said: “I remember being told that I wasn’t going to do anything, that I was stupid, unintelligent, that kind of thing. I hated being in education.”

But she was given her big break by the Journalism Diversity Fund, a body that funds NCTJ training for those in under-represented groups, doing her training in Brighton in 2017/2018.

Wilkins has now written for publications including The Independent, Daily Mail and Metro, has written The Autism Friendly Cookbook, and is currently editor in chief of Disability Review Magazine.

However, she has never had a staff job, despite applying for many positions when she left college. She said prospective employers were often completely ignorant about how to make “reasonable” adjustments for someone who has autism.

Asked what strengths she brings to a job in journalism, she said: “I have the nickname from my editor, and a colleague of mine, of being the detail freak. I’m better when it comes to long-form projects, simply because I think it’s easier for me to have a mastery of the detail and sometimes picking up the stuff that people have missed, or maybe following up on stuff that others have missed.”

Asked what employers could do to better support employees and interviewees with autism, she said: “Well, first of all, give a damn about the Equality Act. It is beyond frustrating to go into a newsroom to an interview, to be told ‘we’ve got these reasonable adjustments’ and not to be given them or have to do the explaining, and therefore the emotional labour, of what you’re entitled to. Reasonable adjustments are there for a reason. It makes things better.

“Second of all, we have this view that access for disability, it’s apparently costly, it’s apparently expensive. That’s not true.

“It’s even just things such as giving interview questions ahead of time to people so that they are able to script. They’re not rehearsing, this is the way in which people like me are able to talk.

“It’s just very simple things like that. Rather than expecting us to do all the explaining. Why should we? We should have moved past this a long time ago.”

She said removing the barriers to entry for journalists with autism could help the news industry build trust and reach new audiences.

“You cannot have ethics and ethical journalism without inclusion of everyone. When we talk about diversity and inclusion very often the image that comes to mind is someone who is a wheelchair user.

“We need to remember that in terms of trying to reach targets and all that kind of thing, that there is no one particular look.”

Wilkins noted that the last Government census found that almost 25% of the population is classed as disabled under the definition in the Equality Act – and that cohort is growing.

“That is the world’s largest minority group and it is the fastest growing,” she said. “Can we afford to be ignoring it?”

More from Press Gazette on neurodiversity in the media:

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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