Greta Thunberg by Harley Weir

the positive impact of having someone proudly autistic in the spotlight

We spoke to teenagers on the spectrum about how Greta Thunberg offers a different perspective on autism to the usual media portrayal.

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09 May 2019, 10:56am

Greta Thunberg by Harley Weir

"16 year old climate activist with Asperger" reads Greta Thunberg’s Twitter bio. The first five words of that bio are now widely known -- Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden, has done more in the last year to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming than millions of adults have achieved in decades. She is a byword for bravery, courage and the power of protest to evoke change.

The last two words of her bio -- "with Asperger" -- are less widely known. She is referring there to having Asperger Syndrome, a subtype of autism.

Autism is characterised by differences in social interaction, communication and behaviours, along with struggles coping with an overload of sensory stimulation. Since its inception as a certified condition in the mid 20th century, it has been a byword for supposedly undesirable personality traits -- awkwardness, weirdness, anti-sociality. Autistic people, for generations, in classrooms, playgrounds, parks, offices and other locations have been verbally and physically bullied, friendless, depicted as outcasts and freaks.

"The truth is that autism can definitely be challenging, but it can also come with many benefits."

For a hero of our times to be openly and proudly autistic is awe-inspiring for a new generation of autistic people. Greta has said herself her autistic traits help her see things from outside the box, not being so easily led astray by lies and mistruths. Such positivity is almost unheard of for a community of people who every day are forced to ‘mask’ -- behave unnaturally and copy the behaviour of non-autistic people -- if they want to try and fit in as members of mainstream society.

Quincy Hansen is a 17-year-old autistic blogger from Denver, Colorado in the United States. Such talk of autism’s positive characteristics is manna from heaven for him and others. “It is incredibly important that Greta has put emphasis on the positive aspects of autism,” says Quincy. “Right now, the common paradigm surrounding autism seems to be completely negative.

"People only talk about our deficits. They talk only about our costs, never about what positive things we can bring to society. The truth is that autism can definitely be challenging, but it can also come with many benefits. I truly believe Greta is helping move views on autism towards a more positive light, and is helping people see that autism is not an inherently bad characteristic to have.”

Issy Jackson, 22, from South London, concurs with such talk. “I find her very inspirational. The shame that comes with being autistic can be cause to shrink oneself, to hide away in the hope that no one notices that you’re autistic. Having seen her confidence in sharing the fact she is autistic, and how this can aid to change the wider perception of autism, is inspiration to keep pursuing transparency about my autism and taking pride in it.”

What makes Greta’s success as a campaigner all the more remarkable is the fact that she is an autistic woman. There is currently a 4:1 ratio in terms of diagnosis between males and females diagnosed as autistic. Since autism’s inception, it has been a condition whose diagnostic criteria have been decided by male doctors, tested out on young males, with females being an afterthought. Greta is a minority within a minority.

Siena Castellon is 16 years old, autistic, an anti-bullying campaigner and founder of Quantum Leap Mentoring, who offer peer mentoring for children who are autistic and/or have learning differences. She is inspired by Greta. “As a fellow autistic teen girl, we share a sisterhood. We also share a universal experience. Greta’s mother has described her daughter as having been bullied and friendless -- a very common experience amongst autistic teen girls.

"We are often rejected and mistreated by our classmates for being different. My experience motivated me to become a neurodiversity advocate and anti-bullying campaigner. In some ways, I feel like we’ve travelled a similar path.”

Issy feels similarly. “There is very little out there about autistic women. This can be extremely difficult to grapple with because it leads to internal questioning about whether the things I am thinking I experience are actually the reality. I have struggled endlessly with self doubt.

"The thing is, when you don’t see role models, how are you meant to know? Having someone like Greta at the forefront of one of the major issues of our times gives me and other women someone to relate to. It let’s us on the spectrum know that our experiences are real, we are visible and most importantly, we are capable.”

Of course, with a young, autistic woman daring to speak out against the status quo, there has been criticism. Toby Young, a walking, talking basketball hoop (so routinely dunked on), has insisted that Greta is wrong for stating governments are doing ‘nothing’ to tackle climate change, in spite of Theresa May declining a meeting with Greta and criticising pupils for joining Greta’s Climate Strike and missing a day of school. Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked (funded by right wing billionaires and climate change deniers Charles and David Koch), has spoken of Greta’s ‘monotone voice, looking and sounding like a cult member’ and described her as ‘chilling’.

The real chilling thing is the ableism his comments were plainly rooted in. Comments such as these, as Siena says on a general level, “Demonstrate that our society is still very intolerant of people who are different.” Autistic people’s life expectancy is 16 years less than non-autistic people. They are far more likely to be unemployed, mentally ill and socially isolated. From cradle to grave, there is a chronic lack of support and provision for autistic people.

All of this makes Greta all the more heroic. Like 80% of autistic people at some point in their lives, she has suffered with mental health issues. Her OCD, selective mutism and bouts of anxiety and depression have caused her to miss long periods of school and lose up to ten kilos in weight. However, she has also said without her autism diagnosis, she would never have commenced her school strike and achieved what she has in raising awareness of climate change.

Greta can ultimately, through her words and deeds, not only force politicians and others into action on climate change, but raise awareness and improve the lives of autistic people around the world.

Rebekah Gillian is a 20-year-old autistic lifestyle blogger who also appreciates having Greta in the public eye. “I think it's great that there's someone who can represent just how varied autistic people are, and can make people realise that we have strengths as well as weaknesses and can live happy lives if we're supported properly. “

Echoing Quincy, she adds, “I’m already seeing Greta shattering so many of these stereotypes, and I hope that she will help people see autistic people as the capable, intelligent, and strong-willed people that we are.”

Greta, from one autistic person to another: nolite te bastardes carborundorum -- keep fighting the good fight.