Neurodiversity in Journalism

CBC and autistic journalist Justin McElroy shares what it’s like navigating neurodiversity in a neurotypical industry


Jasper Chu (He/Him) // Contributor
Cassandra Valenzuela Poon (she/her) // Illustrator


Sunlight shines through CBC Vancouver’s office windows on a cold February day. Sitting in one cubicle amidst a maze of them, Justin McElroy is on his cell phone, speaking with a resident of Lions Bay who is explaining the political drama unfolding in the city under their new mayor, Ken Berry. This job has been McElroy’s routine since 2014, and being their municipal affairs reporter is a role he’s made into his own. 

At a casual glance, McElroy would look like your average reporter for Canada’s national broadcaster. Diagnosed with autism around age six, he excelled at spelling, playing chess and memorizing textbooks. But social cues were where he struggled. Recalling his experiences, especially interacting with peers, he would “feel this sort of emotional distance,” explaining, “I can’t figure them out quite as quick, or [I] will say something, and they’ll sort of react awkwardly.” Because of this, he tried to understand how his peers interacted to improve himself.

McElroy stands out in the news media for being diagnosed with autism—something that’s not often recognized or accepted. McElroy started at the University of British Columbia, studying political science, but found his love for journalism through working as a contributing editor at their student newspaper, the Ubyssey

“It’s compiling information, and telling people about that information,” he says. “The idea is to tell people accurately what has transpired and when someone has lied or done something deceitful.” He likens the profession to that of a town crier, “you get that opportunity and that privilege to tell people, ‘Hey, I spent a lot of time looking into this thing, and I think it’s interesting, and I hope you find it interesting too’.” 

However, his first few years as a journalist weren’t easy. His supervisors thought he lacked bedside manners, good looks and formal training. He recalls them saying, “you’re the weirdo that knows too much and has bad eye contact and is too blunt with them when you think you’re right.” McElroy adds that it took time to temper that feedback and learn about local news. McElroy wasn’t alone in this. Paul Finch, who is chair of Autism Canada and himself on the spectrum, says there’s a preconceived notion that those with autism “won’t follow or won’t be able to intuitively follow the established norms and social customs of whatever situation we’re in.” 

Some of the most significant issues are social skills like maintaining eye contact and gauging someone’s tone of voice. McElroy says, “if someone uses body language to indicate that they’re having a difficult day at work… I can’t read it; I don’t know what’s happening.” He adds that his coworkers rarely recognize the missed cue as a function of autism and instead assume he’s intentionally ignoring that they’re having a difficult day. 

Finch says not all employers are aware of the diagnosis, which negatively affects employment opportunities for those with autism. “[Employers] may get spooked; they may get worried that somebody is not able to otherwise fill a position. They may make assumptions about what else is going on. They may not understand or realize it’s autism.” McElroy himself didn’t disclose his diagnosis to CBC Vancouver until a few years after first being hired, “A few years after that, I became public about the fact that I was autistic. This was also the thing I did not tell my coworkers or managers at the time for all sorts of reasons.” 

In hindsight, McElroy is one of many who initially struggled when he was first employed, and it’s an issue that has not gone away. In the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, 33 percent of individuals with autism aged 20 to 64 reported being employed, and 54 per cent reported getting their pay from municipal social assistance or welfare, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, among other sources. Another 2018 survey by Health Canada found those with autism in the above age range make a median income of $2,000 a year. 

McElroy stresses the importance of advocating for your needs on the job, “talk about it from a support-based way that doesn’t make people defensive but still allows you to thrive.” He understands that it may need to be overexplained to employers but adds that it’s better than the alternative. Working at CBC Vancouver was about selling his strengths while helping his employers understand the areas where he wasn’t as good. However, Finch has noted a lot has changed since the 1990s with a growth in diagnosis and knowledge about autism, “There’s a different level of understanding right now, and it’s still not where it needs to be, but I think it’s definitely elevated.”

Today, McElroy has made a name for himself at CBC Vancouver as CBC Vancouver’s municipal affairs reporter. With over 80,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter), he’s become well known for creating graphics and charts for CBC covering statistics on BC’s municipalities and the COVID-19 pandemic. It included issues from COVID-19 case counts in foreign countries to how municipal councillors voted on a particular motion. His work has won him numerous accolades, the latest being the Jack Webster Award for Excellence in Digital Journalism, Vancouver Magazine’s Power 50, and an Honorary Fellow position at Douglas College. 

Despite facing adversity, McElroy has become a household name throughout Greater Vancouver for his work. His experience with autism and the path it put him on to becoming a journalist is a story about what it takes to be successful in the job market amidst the stigma facing those with autism. It’s not about understanding if someone with autism is capable; it’s understanding their particular capabilities and how best to use them. 

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