I was asked to give a speech at the Science Gallery in London, in connection with Malady Magazine. This is a transcript of the speech I crafted before the event.
A few years ago, to much fanfare, a book by a Japanese teenager was released. Titled The Reason I Jump, a non-verbal teenager took us through what it was like to be on the Autistic spectrum. This was a book that resonated with me, and I wanted to talk just a little bit about the reason that I, too, ‘jump’
January, 2015. To the surprise of literally no one, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. Three and a half years waiting, compounded with various tests and struggling with academia, had concluded a diagnosis. Yes, your daughter does talk like a robot. Yes, your daughter has trouble with theory of mind, ‘inflexible thinking’, making friends, academia-anything that seemed to qualify as “normal”, even “conventional”. Cue sarcastic clapping from me. Finally, you acknowledge what I tried to say all along!
When you tell people you’re autistic, I found the reactions fell into three categories. Some would just shrug; “oh, it’s just a label”, “business as usual, you’re still the same”. Others would be cautious as if walking on eggshells. The third usually relied on extremity-“YOU MUST BE CURED FOUL BEAST”, “That’s just an excuse”, “You’re normal, really”, “You’ll never achieve anything”. And it was surprising that the reactions were across a broad range of people-relatives, ‘friends’, even teachers at some points. I lost “friends”, teachers sometimes seemed to be afraid of me, and newsrooms would sometimes think I was not up to the job, or would assign me something vaguely under the heading of “diversity”.
Just being stationery-still, under the radar, undetected-in a neurotypical world means jumping the hoops, navigating the extra, often unseen, hurdles. Maths and its theoretical concepts alluded me and remained elusive. Girls my own age wanted to talk about boys; after all, they’re more ‘fit’ than politics. PE meant being picked last for games, having to hide my inabilities.
My ambitions took on a new dimension, too. Curiosity-having felt like being on the outside, looking in-was natural. I was known for being blunt and asking questions typically deemed as “not socially appropriate”, despite others wishing to know the answer. The idea of being a journalist seemed like the ideal job.
It took three interviews-one with the training provider, the next with the person in charge of learning support, and with a panel at the FT-to secure my place on an NCTJ course. A bursary from the Journalism Diversity Fund went a long way to helping me.
This was one of the most intensely packed times of my life. It was also intensely intellectual-studying media law, memorising the Code Of Conduct, practicing shorthand laboriously, all the while producing stories. It wasn’t always enjoyable, and I wasn’t always given the support needed, but it stood me in good stead.
One teacher bought alive my love for stories. I wasn’t the label I had been at other times in earlier education; rather, I was a human being. We heard the stories of Old Fleet Street, now long gone. Jonathan Aitken’s TV speech was replicated for us, and the Queen impersonated for a brief comedic skit. (Jonathan Aitken being a Conservative MP who was caught committing perjury, due to a long-running story in The Guardian.) Rupert Murdoch was ridiculed. This was where the stories began.
From this, I was lucky. Harry Evans, the former Sunday Times editor, known for campaigning for the Thalidomide children, sat for a half hour interview with me. He spoke about a huge range of topics; asking if he thought he was on spectrum, he returned with “You think I’d be so lucky?” Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor and an early journalism hero, talked to me for forty minutes. Although this was not printed at the time, Rusbridger confirmed to me that yes, he would consider himself to be a feminist. I was invited to the reception Hacked Off held, with people like Hugh Grant, Professor Brian Cathcart (one of my favourite Byline writers) in attendance. I became a “Twitter friend” of a whistleblower. Finally, I use to cover the ongoing story of Thalidomide for Byline Media, accumulating in a visit to the manufacturer.
Every story taken on, every person talked to, has a common thread. Typically marginalised, not considered ‘mainstream’, these were the stories that fascinated me. And they were more than just a story, a cutting to be filed away. They were people, too.
The question should no no longer be “why do you want to be a journalist?” Autism presents additional challenges, as does the lack of educational and career support. There were so many hoops, so many hurdles; at times I would be worried I would be left behind, forgotten. But without being on spectrum, none of this would have been possible. Autism was the advantage-asking the questions, researching in greater depth, attention to detail (mostly).
I cannot claim to be the best journalist or the perfect human; we are all flawed, after all. To be ‘human’-and to have even a touch of humanity-means to always be a work in progress. To tell the stories not typically ‘seen’ or read are what I love about journalism. Disability is not the be all and end all, as it has another word in it; ability. Just because I am ‘differently abled’, as are other people on spectrum, does not make us any less important or less competent. To tell the stories of people not typically ‘seen’, or even attempt to, is the reason I jump.