You’ve probably heard of Greta Thunberg by now. In case you haven’t, she’s a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has become world-famous in little more than a year. In August of 2018, Thunberg launched a solitary school strike outside the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm, standing there all by herself with a sign calling for urgent action against the climate crisis. From the beginning, her argument was both simple and compelling: The adults who are destroying the planet are forcing her generation to face an existential threat to human life and the natural world. Something must be done, right now.
Journalists noticed her, and a few other students started coming too; then dozens, and then hundreds. By the spring of this year Thunberg’s solo actions had inspired a worldwide movement with its own hashtag: #ClimateStrike. Millions of teenagers and children all over the world have participated, urging governments and other institutions of power to do something about the crisis that endangers their future. Their reasoning ca be summed up by what 19-year-old named Aji Piper told the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last year:
While I am not a lawyer nor a climate scientist, and I only recently came of voting age, I know from studying climate science and living with the consequences of climate change today that my health, my community, and my future — and that of my generation — is at stake.
Thunberg’s gift lies in her ability to sum up the issues of the climate crisis succinctly, in a form anyone can understand. Take this excerpt from a recording she did for "Notes on a Conditional Form," a new album by The 1975.
We are right now at the beginning of a climate and ecological crisis. And we need to call it what it is: an emergency. Today we use about 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed, everything needs to change, and it has to start today.
She concludes, "The main solution is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases."
There is an eloquence to that, as well as a simplicity. Thunberg doesn't go into wonkish detail like a scientist, or overblown (or evasive) rhetoric like a politician. She aims right for the soul of the matter. She has digested the inescapable conclusions of climate change science, and turned them into a few sentences that tell you everything you need to know: The world is heading toward an ecological catastrophe because of our greenhouse gas emissions. Period. Everything else is commentary.
With her sudden fame and influence, Thunberg has also become a target for right-wing abuse — which is probably a sign that climate deniers and their allies are scared of her. Like the Parkland student protesters before her, Thunberg has been mocked, derided and subjected to semi-conspiratorial whisper campaigns by many of her critics on the right.
During Thunberg’s recent trans-Atlantic voyage to the U.S. (she refuses to travel by air), one Brexiteer joked that she might have a yachting accident. A right-wing British MP dismissed her as the “Justin Bieber of ecology.” An Australian blogger named Andrew Bolt took a veiled swipe at her mental health by describing her as “deeply disturbed.”
That last insult was both important and emblematic. From her first moments in the spotlight, Thunberg has been open about the fact that she is on the autism spectrum. (She uses the familiar term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which is no longer used for diagnostic purposes in the U.S.) For fellow autists like me, this makes her both a source of inspiration and a role model. For conservatives wishing to knock her down a peg, needless to say, it’s a perceived weakness and an opening for exploitation and ridicule.
Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised when I heard that Thunberg was being bullied for having autism. When you're on the spectrum, being bullied comes with the territory. In high school I often sat alone at lunch and had few friends. Some of those I trusted at the time later admitted that they would also ridicule me behind my back.
Despite the growing awareness that exists for autism, it seems that Thunberg's story wasn't very different from mine. She has written on Twitter that before she became an activist, she had "no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder." Now that she has emerged as the face of a generation that wants to save the planet for all of us, she is being bullied by many on the right for being on the spectrum. Thankfully, times have changed, and she isn't afraid to speak out.
Thunberg wrote this on Twitter:
When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning! I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower. #aspiepower. I'm not public about my diagnosis to 'hide' behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an 'illness', or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before.
Leading the climate strike movement, she added, has changed her life: "I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people."
Thunberg's experience as an Aspie will resonate with many people on the spectrum. Of course autistic individuals are as different from each other as anyone else. But I perceive some common threads here.
- She has a deep passion about a subject that many people find difficult to comprehend.
Millions of people are concerned about the climate crisis. But when you listen to Thunberg speak, you can tell that her interest is, in some qualitative sense, different. There is an intensity with which she speaks, an in-depth knowledge of the material, that transcends mere familiarity and enters the realm of passion. It is the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that causes many an Aspie to be told to shut up and act normal, because neurotypicals aren't interested in hearing you "nerd out" about whatever topic has popped into your head. For me those subjects include history, politics and pop culture; for Thunberg, it’s clearly climate science.
Considering that people with Asperger's are often known for their ability to absorb vast quantities of information on specialized subjects and use it constructively, if there is someone you want to consult as an expert on climate change, it's an Aspie.
- Her perceived weirdness is used to discredit her, often by people who won’t quite say they're picking on her for being on the spectrum.
This one, I regret to say, never goes away. Even in my adulthood — even in environments as supposedly understanding as academia — I still encounter people who read my non-neurotypical way of socializing as inappropriate, who demand that I show more emotion or who pick apart everything I say. These people probably don’t think of themselves as bigots. But the fact that the comments sections under every article about Thunberg are littered with ridicule about her "weird" or “robotic” behavior, or other insults everyone with autism has heard, strongly suggests that they are.
If there is one message that neurotypical people need to hear, it's that if you viscerally reject an Aspie because he or she is "weird," your opinion on your motives is irrelevant. Either you are a bigot, or you’re behaving a hell of a lot like one.
- Most of the criticism of Thunberg that is based on her autism comes from the right.
This isn't simply because, in general, liberals and progressives have more empathy for marginalized groups. It is also because there is a growing tendency to use "autistic" as an insult on the online right, akin to "snowflake" or "cuck." The underlying idea is that if you're on the autism spectrum, you’re a freak, detached from the regular world, either prone to emotional outbursts or android-like in affect. (Bigotry is rarely consistent.)
I’ve been attacked for my autism in Reddit forums on everything from white nationalism to feminism. When I wrote a personal essay in 2017 saying that my autism helps inform my political views, the picture and headline became a meme in certain circles, as if the idea that autism was linked to liberal politics could somehow discredit liberal ideology as a whole.
The right’s obsessive focus on Thunberg’s autism also illustrates their fear. This is where the analogy with the Parkland student protesters is strongest: Conservatives can’t easily dispute the moral imperative driving these young people (who don’t want to die, whether from gunfire or a poisoned planet) or their factual evidence. So they instead resort to cheap shots. Like all bullies, they pick on you not because they’re convinced they’re right, but because they feel inadequate.
As autism expert Tony Attwood puts it, people on the spectrum are "renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice."
The part of our condition that involves disability is largely about socialization: We can have difficulty reading the subtext in interpersonal interactions, reading nonverbal communication and deciphering body language. On a deeper level, people on the spectrum struggle with the ethereal language of socialization that neurotypicals intuitively understand and take for granted.
This presents a catch-22 for members of the autistic community. If, on the one hand, we’re capable of learning the “social script” and thus appear “normal,” people question whether we are really on the spectrum at all. I recall a boss who once told me, “I’d never be able to tell you were autistic if you didn’t let me know that.”
At the same time, many find the performance of constantly behaving like a neurotypical person to be exhausting. When you become too tired to keep it up and begin to display autistic traits, the social penalties are even greater because people can’t understand why you went from being normal to being “weird.” This, of course, assumes that you can perform the social script in the first place, which many of us can’t.
As a result, we experience rejection and tend to self-isolate and self-loathe. Unless, of course, we're lucky enough to be rewarded for the aspects of our condition that are superpowers.
In June I had a conversation with Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a well-known spokesperson for autism. As we discussed the fact that we had been fortunate to find careers doing things we loved, she said that her advice for anyone on the spectrum was to figure out which of your gifts can be directed toward a vocation and then “make yourself really good at it.”
The gift of being autistic is that you tend to be really good at certain things, often with less effort than others have to put into them. (Which can cause more than a bit of jealousy). The downside is that because of your deficiencies in socialization, you don't have much choice. You have to be really good at these things. If you're not, society is likely to discard you for your difference and not reward you for what you have to offer.
We have to work harder, try harder, seize every opportunity and never stop being hungry. Because the moment we fail, the normies may decide they have no more use for us.
This is why it is so inspiring, indeed gratifying, for an Aspie to be taking the lead in saving the world. If Greta Thunberg succeeds in changing history, it will be not in spite of her autism but because of it. It is the fact that she has the passion and drive and work ethic to focus on a singular issue, and the intellect to understand it in all its complexity, and the maturity of a society that is far from where it should be in accepting autism but is miles ahead of where it was only a few decades ago. And, as it happens, the issue she’s so singularly focused on is one that has mobilized an entire generation that realizes, all too clearly, that their future is literally at stake.
Greta Thunberg is right: Her autism is her superpower. And because she is using it to fight for a righteous cause, she is precisely the hero we need right now.