Seeing past the curtain: One autistic journalist’s perspective

Emily Girard, Features Editor

The best advice I ever received came from Veda Morgan, a writer and director of engagement and diversity at the Louisville Courier-Journal. During a panel discussion, I asked her how I could detach myself more from my reporting. I was able to maintain objectivity, but my identity and my brain kept getting in the way of what I was able to cover.

“Don’t detach yourself,” she said.

I had a unique view of the world, and I needed to leverage that to see issues that others miss.

As an autistic person, this really resonated with me.

I’ve always been aware of spaces and trends that others tend to miss. I constantly bombard the Kernel’s Slack channels with images of random signs around campus, asking, “Can we cover this? Can we cover this?” Sometimes, no one has seen the sign before me. Sometimes, we actually cover those events or patterns, and they end up being pretty good features.

One time, I stopped looking at what was actually written on these signs and started wondering how the signs were printed and designed. I proceeded to write a 1,900-word feature about UK’s design processes that gave the Kernel’s designer a heart attack when he found out how long it was.

I knew I wanted to be a journalist before I even knew I was autistic. As a child, I would put on an incorrectly fastened tie and write articles about my favorite cartoons.

In high school, I started reading Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for fun. It gave me a way to connect with the outside world. I felt comfort in staying behind a notepad or a camera and telling people’s stories. It was one of those things that immediately clicked with me.

It was also one of the only things that immediately clicked with me. Nothing came naturally to me growing up, except for maybe walking, crying and other things that babies do. But speaking patterns, writing styles, social interactions and just day-to-day functioning were all sourced from others.

Many of these trends, especially societal ones, don’t come naturally to me and need explaining. (Typical autistic trait.) But when I learn a new concept or am told about a principle in society, you cannot get it out of my head with a blowtorch. I’ll figure out that the giant floating wizard head at the end of the yellow brick road is just a projection created by a little man behind a curtain, and it’ll instantly make sense.

Understanding is the key to my happiness. If something is explained to me, and it makes sense, I am happy. I will also carry that knowledge with me for the rest of my life, and it will help me understand the world and people, and life will be easier and we’ll all live happily ever after.

The problem comes when I turn around and realize everyone is still staring at the giant floating wizard head.

I have learned that some societal trends, especially problematic ones, fall into an infuriating category known as Things That Do Not Make Sense On Purpose. Racism, sexism, homophobia, those kinds of things. I cannot begin to process them, no matter how many times they are explained or even recounted to me. Just let people be people, people.

I understand that unlearning internalized things is hard, especially if you were raised in a particularly hostile environment, but some of the things I’ve seen people do to antagonize a particular group are pretty concerning. They are also impossible for me to come to terms with.

Sometimes when I hear about these things, I stay up until the wee hours of the night, thinking. Wondering what I was missing to make this make sense. Not the point, obviously. The point is that it doesn’t make sense. No amount of ruminating will make it make sense. But it has to. It has to make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, why are people doing it so much?

You begin to see how curiosity is not always a good thing. Inquisitiveness, ironically, is one of the main issues I run into when covering the news. When covering news, especially hard, breaking news, we want to answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why. For whatever reason, I am very bad at determining the why.

There exists a strange dichotomy in my brain in which I do not understand why others do the things they do, but I will still trust them, since they obviously know better than me. My ability to see past the proverbial curtain evidently does not transfer into parsing people’s motives. Maybe it’s because I often act in ways people don’t understand, but it never occurs to me to investigate why someone does what they do. They have their reasons, and they clearly know what they’re doing.

News reporting requires skepticism. No statement from any source can be verified until it is confirmed by other external sources. You can imagine how having a brain that immediately welds new information into its framework makes this skepticism 100 times harder to act on.

I know my job is to investigate, though, so I try my best. That being said, I know my limits. I tend to steer clear of beats where motives are the main focus, such as crime and politics. These areas also attract wild mass guessing, which does not help my efforts to understand. Why did a candidate say this? Are they trying to get on this party’s good side? Why was this crime committed? Was it political? Cultural? Some hate crime? Did the perpetrator simply want people to suffer? Now, we’re right back into Things That Do Not Make Sense On Purpose, and I’m even more confused than when we started.

I prefer someone’s personality to be easily reflected by their situation. I want to talk with someone who does a cool thing and ask them why they do that cool thing. I want to see what makes people happy, not why they hurt people. I don’t want to stay up all night wondering how UK administrators sleep knowing they gave all possible benefits to an accused sexual predator while actively hindering students’ efforts to legally obtain records related to said accusations.

But it still happens. And in moments like the one in which I’m writing this, when it’s 2:30 a.m. and I can’t sleep, I wonder why I am this way. Why can’t I just understand things how they are?

When I think about how I fit into the journalism sphere, I’m reminded of a caption written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Craig F. Walker, part of his photo series showing how a boy with autism and other neurodivergencies navigates the world.

“He is moody and unpredictable. He is easy to love, affectionate, and friendly. Vulnerable, sweet, devoted to family. Impulsive, strong, and overflowing with emotion. Dreaming of home, always. Never quite at home, anywhere.”

I don’t think Walker was being metatextual when he wrote this, but it really speaks to my relationship with journalism as a whole. In essence, in theory, journalism is my home. It’s been my home since I was a child for reasons I can’t understand. But when I entered the environment, I found that, despite my continuing passion, it was not made for me.

Still, I have somehow figured out a way to fit in. Hopefully, that will become easier in the future.

In recent years, autistic journalists have become more visible. Political journalist Eric Garcia wrote pretty much this exact same article in 2015, and he ended up turning it into a book called “We’re Not Broken.” The title is a pretty accurate description of what we want you to know. We’re not broken, we’re just different. That may sound cliché, but it’s true. Yet, often, we feel broken, especially in environments that were not made for us.

Luckily, I managed to dig my fingers into an environment that was not made for me and claw out a space for myself.

I write about obscure events, because they’re important. I write about my feelings, because they’re powerful. And when I look behind the curtain and realize that some situation actually makes no sense whatsoever, I write about that too.

Because hey, maybe I’m not stupid. Maybe I don’t have to accept that some things aren’t meant to make sense. Maybe I actually know what I’m talking about, and people could benefit from me pulling back the curtain and going, “Hey, there’s just a guy back here. What the heck?”