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May 28 2024

Navigating Tech-Media Life with Autism in Nigeria – A Chat with Victoria Fakiya

Victoria Fakiya is a Seasoned Reporter for Techpoint Africa, a widely-read tech media company that covers African technology news. She curates Techpoint Digest, a week-daily newsletter that keeps readers up-to-date and smarter about the latest developments in the African tech space.

She is autistic and wants to create an environment in which Nigerians and Africans with invisible disabilities can thrive and succeed.

In this interview, she talks about life as an autistic person, her work at Techpoint, and how society can make life easier for neurodivergent people.

How and when did you discover you had Autism?

I’ve always known I’m different in every sense of the word.

I struggled at university and in social settings. I had a trick I used to pass in secondary school, but when I tried the trick at university, I struggled a lot. That was when I realized something was wrong.

In secondary school, I loved learning, so it was easy to stay up to study, although it was difficult to retain what I read. So, I’d try to pay attention in class, and once the teaching stuck, that was it. Back then, it was about understanding the basics. I tried cramming, too. That didn’t work well, but I passed.

Well, I started asking questions when I left my family to go to university. I was loved at home, so even when I was mocked at secondary school, church, or any social gathering, I sometimes cried because it hurt, but it never affected me because my siblings or parents never made it a big deal. I was treated like everyone else in my family, and that always helped me navigate the discrimination. I believe my primary school experience was too painful because I can’t recall much of it.

While at university, I became curious about myself, but it was after the pandemic that I began searching for answers on the Internet.

After reading through several symptoms, I concluded I either had Autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia—Dyslexia because I don’t understand what I read. That’s paradoxical because I write, correct? But that’s it. I hardly retain anything. I noticed this while in primary school. Despite my ability to write essays well, I struggled with reading and comprehension.

To confirm my self-diagnosis, I consulted a psychologist at the time. The bills sent me home, though. It was sky-high—₦20K per session. It wasn’t until I started working in August 2020 that I realized how important the diagnosis was. In my application to Techpoint Africa, I mentioned that I have ADHD and Dyslexia. I didn’t choose Autism due to the stigma associated with the term.

Working with Techpoint Africa initially proved difficult for me. I wanted to quit my internship, but I decided to complete it after speaking with my boss. We worked remotely then, so it was not a big deal until the hybrid work mode was implemented in 2022. That was when I started to suffer.

Every time I went to the office, I was in pain, tired, and weak. I visited four different hospitals, seeing specialists and general practitioners (GPs). They found nothing physically wrong until my third visit to the fourth hospital. I saw a specialist who misdiagnosed me. I had an adverse reaction to the drugs he prescribed, so I went back to the hospital to complain. But instead of the specialist, I met a GP (General Practitioner) who, after explaining why I was there, advised me to see a mental health professional.

And that was my breakthrough. In August 2022, I was diagnosed, and everything made sense.

How did your family react to the diagnosis?

My family doesn’t know. As I said earlier, growing up, they treated me well. My parents knew my strengths and weaknesses and worked with them. My siblings didn’t treat me differently, either. Knowing won’t change anything.

How did you get into journalism? What do you enjoy most about it?

My journalism career began at the university. In my first year, I joined my departmental press. And in my second year, I joined the union of campus journalists.

It’s funny how I became a Reporter for Techpoint Africa. I just left a talking stage with someone when they shared the link to apply for an Intern Reporter position with Techpoint Africa with me. It was in March 2021.

Some backstory: It was during the pandemic, and I was fresh out of school. I completed my final exams in February 2020, and COVID-19 struck in March. So, during the lockdown, I began a 100-day writing challenge. I don’t like being idle, so I used my blog and social media platforms to carry out the challenge. I wrote to young adults about mental health and social issues. I started blogging in 2017, by the way. I’ve always enjoyed writing; it has always been a means of self-expression and an avenue to inform and empower others.

When the lockdown was lifted in August 2020, I worked for a company for two months before quitting because I was misunderstood at work and couldn’t continue. I was jobless afterwards and hated it, so I resumed writing. How and when did you discover you had Autism?

But in March 2021, someone shared a link with me, and after a series of interview stages, I began working in May.

What do I enjoy most about it? I like that my stories—particularly the Techpoint Digest newsletter—empower people and allow them to make well-informed and better decisions. Information is power. Knowledge puts you ahead of the curve and makes you stand out.

What were some of the first strategies that helped you navigate life with Autism?

When I got my diagnosis, everything made sense. I figured out why I don’t work well in groups or with more than one person at a time, why I’m so sensitive to noise, loud music, the sun, and taste, why I’m always exhausted and likes, and why I experience anxiety, struggle to retain what I read, and find it difficult to communicate at times.

So, one strategy that has proven effective for me at work and home is to limit these activities. For example, following my diagnosis, work management advised me to work entirely from home and only come into the office once a month. Interestingly, since then, I have been very productive at work.

Outside the workplace, I control the things within my control and endure those I have no control over.

How have you grown personally since your diagnosis, and what self-discoveries have you made along the way?

My self-discovery journey has been challenging, but understanding the reasons behind my behaviour has been liberating and has given me the opportunity to improve. At work, I’m now more productive. I also have a better grasp on how to consume information in a way that enhances my understanding.

How has living with Autism influenced your career (particularly your work environment and interactions with colleagues)?

My diagnosis isn’t a secret in the workplace. My colleagues are aware that I’m autistic, and that’s fine. There’s no discrimination at work. Interactions are good.

Well, while I prefer one-on-one conversations, group discussions (which can be draining) are unavoidable. So, I just zone in and out. However, Techpoint Africa offers me a good working environment to thrive in.

Your role at Techpoint Africa is quite impactful. What have been some of your proudest moments or achievements in your career so far?

My proudest achievement is writing Techpoint Digest. I’ve been doing that since 2022, and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come with the newsletter. The newsletter is a 5-minute read every weekday that makes you smarter. So, if you’re interested in knowing the latest happenings in the African tech space, Techpoint Digest is the one you’re looking for. Here’s the link to the newsletter:

How do you think workplaces can be more inclusive and supportive of employees with Autism?

I believe that most Nigerians—if not all Africans—have a negative attitude towards Autism. I get it; we’re from a place with insufficient resources on mental health, mental illnesses, or invisible disabilities in general. Our cultural and religious backgrounds also influence our judgment on mental health.

However, if everyone could look up more information about Autism or other neurodivergent conditions rather than stigmatizing or discriminating against it, we might be more inclusive of people with Autism or autistic people in the workplace.

Neurodivergent people, like neurotypicals, bring incredible talent or skills to the workplace. People with Autism simply require more accommodations to cope because most of what makes us uncomfortable comes from the environment.

In a nutshell, people can be more supportive and inclusive by being informed of the condition themselves. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips now. Empathy and patience will also go a long way.

Outside of your professional life, what hobbies or activities do you enjoy that help you relax and unwind?

If I’m not watching a show or movie on Netflix, I’m playing ScrabbleGo.

What “unusual” hobbies or interests do you have?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. I’m interested in mental health, which isn’t unusual. I’m interested in seeing young adults with mental illnesses and neurodivergent conditions (generally, invisible disabilities) thrive. I’ve got a thing for that. Meanwhile, my unusual interest could be why people behave the way they do.

What are the most outrageous misconceptions about Autism you’ve heard?

“You do not look autistic” is one of the most outrageous things I hear about Autism. How do autistic people look? Are we supposed to look dumb because most people believe people on the spectrum are? I understand the sentiment, but the notion is untrue. Sure, we’re anxious and suffer from sensory overload and burnout, but we are not dumb. We look just like humans should.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, not a disease or illness; it’s simply a difference in how people think and interact. No two autistic people are alike, hence the “spectrum” in the name.

Another concept I find misleading and outrageous is the notion that all autistic people are geniuses. PLEASE, CALM DOWN. Doctor Shaun Murphy in the American medical series, The Good Doctor, is a genius, as is Attorney Woo in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a Kdrama law series. However, not everyone on the spectrum is a genius.

I understand that the media is attempting to erase negativity and correct misconceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorder by portraying autistic characters as geniuses. Still, the majority of autistic people, in reality, are not. Not everyone on the spectrum has an eidetic or photographic memory or Savant Syndrome. Some people just want to work or learn in a conducive environment that accommodates their productivity.

How do you think society’s perception of Autism has changed over the years, and what more can be done?

In the past, autistic individuals were often misunderstood and misdiagnosed, frequently labelled with derogatory terms, and placed in institutions with little support. In Africa, Autism was sometimes seen as a curse or associated with paranormal causes, leading to social exclusion and a lack of specialized services.

However, there’s now a growing recognition of the importance of early diagnosis and intervention, with efforts to improve services, access, and awareness. While progress towards Autism acceptance has been made in Nigeria and across Africa, there’s still a long way to go.

Is there an aspect of Autism that feels like a superpower to you?

I am forgetful and rarely pay attention to details. I don’t read because I have poor retention abilities. I have trouble picturing anything in my mind. But if I have a superpower, it’s the ability to create something despite my shortcomings in these areas.

I write—and I wonder how I do it—because I can’t remember what I read. I notice things in people (emphasis on people) that most don’t, although I don’t pay attention to details because my mind is sometimes blank or wandering. I hardly concentrate.

Besides, contrary to another common misconception that people on the Autism spectrum lack empathy, I consider empathy to be one of my superpowers. Empathy comes naturally to me. Perhaps that’s why I’m always curious about why people behave the way they do.

How do you think Autism influences your creativity and approach to writing?

Autism influences everything I do because it affects how I think and interact. So, answering how it influences my creativity and approach to writing is quite difficult because I haven’t had a life without Autism. Maybe I have in my past life.

Jokes aside, I don’t know how I write. But I can tell you this: when I have an idea, I just pick up my laptop and start writing. It just keeps flowing. I also work with outlines, though.

If you hadn’t become a journalist, what other career paths would you have pursued, and why?

I’m very interested in young adults and mental health. If I hadn’t become a journalist, I’d have continued blogging and helping young adults thrive.

In 2018, I organized an event at UI aimed at fostering positive body image, healthy relationships, and mental health among young adults. In 2019, I mentored 30 secondary school female students, showcasing 30 inspiring women from Nigeria’s history to encourage them to aspire to greatness.

During the same year, I undertook a 90-day writing challenge focusing on gender equality and gender-based violence to raise awareness and educate my audience. In 2020, during the pandemic, I started a 100-day writing challenge tailored for young adults, addressing various issues they encounter.

Following the challenge, I shifted my focus to mental health and neurodivergence, volunteering briefly with, Ease Neurocare, an organization supporting mothers who have neurodivergent kids.

Now, in 2024, my passion for mental health hasn’t died. My goal is to create a home for people with invisible or hidden disabilities in Nigeria—particularly those marginalized in society, lacking access to education, and mental health resources, or facing abandonment due to their differences, where they can achieve all their dreams and realize their full potential. Whether I’m a journalist or not, I intend to do this.

Are there any books, tools, or resources you would recommend for others looking to understand Autism better or seeking support?

There are resources online in video or text formats if anyone wants to know the basics of Autism. By the way, I wrote about Autism acceptance in Africa. That could be a good start.

Unfortunately, there are few support systems in Nigeria or Africa. However, online spaces can help people find the assistance they need. The Internet is a powerful tool for raising awareness and educating Africans.

For instance, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow individuals, organizations, and advocacy groups to spread information about Autism, promote events, and share stories about autistic individuals.

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