Greta Thunberg: Some Thoughts on Superpowers and Autistic Pride

So, if you haven’t yet heard, Greta Thunberg is TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year 2019.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, or alternatively using the internet for what it’s actually for (cat pictures and memes, obviously), she’s a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has been on strike from school over the growing climate crisis for the last 16 months. In that time, she has gone from sitting outside the Swedish Parliament to addressing the UN, crossing the Atlantic by boat twice, and meeting everyone from Barack Obama to the Pope, as well as climate protesters across two continents. She is fierce, eloquent, uncompromising, principled, angry, determined, and many other things that society has decided don’t look good on women. And she is also autistic.

As much as I admire her work in defence of the planet from an irreversible climate disaster, her achievement today has struck on a very personal note for me, so much so that I haven’t even put my groceries away because I was in such a rush to get this written down.

At 16, I was an ordinary school kid. I got good grades, didn’t get in trouble, and was passionate about music. I got on well with my teachers (to the extent that I’m still in touch with more of them now than my schoolmates), I overworked myself, and had few friends, and even fewer on whom I could actually rely, it turned out. I was depressed and anxious, which we knew, and autistic, which we didn’t. My mum was batted away by the school when she tried to suggest that I was autistic; “Girls don’t get autism, Mrs Robinson, are you sure it’s not you who has the problem?”

At 16, Greta Thunberg is changing the world, harnessing her autistic superpowers [2] to make grown men listen, quake in their boots, and shrink away from meeting her. She has her own mental struggles, which she has mentioned in public, but she knows who she is. That is one of the things I admire about her most. She has a level of self-knowledge and understanding that many would kill for as adults.

I am aware a lot of this post comes from my bone-deep need to compare myself to other people, a terrible habit that I’ve been trying to break for as long as I can remember, but it also highlights several things for me.

Firstly, Greta was diagnosed autistic a the age of 11.[3] The world is still not very good at accepting autistic women and girls, although it has made marked improvements in the years since my diagnosis. What she shows is that diagnosis is far, far more than a label that you stick on the outside of someone. Rather, it is an understanding of yourself that allows you to be exactly who you are because it has a name, and a set of parameters to work with. Diagnosis, for those who can access it (which is another set of problems for another blog post) can be an absolute lifeline for people who are trying to work out why things are the way they are, why things don’t fit around them. It certainly was for me.

Secondly, Greta allows a kind of autism awareness that is very real, very human, and quite personal. Seeing someone going about their business and saving the world, but also reacting to sensory overload and anxiety is a strange experience. We are so used to polished speakers who brazen it out in front of huge crowds with showmanship and charisma; to see a young autistic woman doing the same job with the same power, but without the shiny veneer the neurotypical world demands of us is nothing short of inspiring. No one is kidding when they say that visibility of minorities is one of the most empowering things there is.

Lastly, she shows that it is really, really bloody hard to be an autistic woman in the public eye. The comments section on anything written by or about her are evidence of the hatred and mistrust of those who are different, those who will not conform to what society wants. Grown adults rip apart every word, every stim, every tiny moment of difference, so that even when she is backed by thousands of the best scientific minds in the world, the issue is still that she looked “disturbed” when she addressed a large group of people in New York one day after stepping off the sailing boat she’d been on for two weeks just to get to America, and her face twitched because of anxiety and overload.

There is still so much work to do to deconstruct ableism, to stop the constant stream of vilification, mockery, and abuse directed at Greta and others for raising their voices against injustice everywhere. Ableism is not just in the loud voices of the furious and the threatened. It is in the silence when we roll over and let people treat the disabled poorly. It’s the way that accessibility everywhere is often treated as an afterthought, for which disabled people are demanded to give over their labour for free just to get into the room. It is in the unseeing privilege of those who will vote for people who will make our lives less safe and less secure because “sacrifices must be made”.

For all this, though, Greta Thunberg makes me proud to be autistic. For years, I have carried the shame of being different, of not being able to accept myself fully. Seeing a young autistic woman taking on the world, daring powerful people to see things differently, and fighting with eloquence and passion gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, I have some superpowers worth using too. My pride won’t last long, I suspect; I’ll finish writing this, get my groceries sorted out, and before long find myself fighting my demons again. But just for now, in among all her other phenomenal achievements, I am going to be grateful to and for Greta Thunberg for lending another voice to the fight for autism acceptance.


Links/Further Reading

[1] Charlotte Alter, Suyin Haynes, and Justin Worland, ‘TIME Magazine Person of the Year 2019: Greta Thunberg’ https://time.com/person-of-the-year-2019-greta-thunberg/

[3] Greta Thunberg, ‘Greta Thunberg responds to Asperger’s critics: ‘It’s a superpower” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/02/greta-thunberg-responds-to-aspergers-critics-its-a-superpower

[2] Greta Thunberg ‘School strike for climate – save the world by changing the rules’ at TEDx Stockholm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAmmUIEsN9A&t=1m46s

Greta Thunberg – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg

Lizzie Huxley-Jones, ‘Greta Thunberg is proud to have Asperger’s—so why do even her fans ignore it?’ https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/greta-thunberg-autism-aspergers-girls

Jack Monroe, ‘Go, Greta. Autism is my superpower too’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/27/jack-monroe-autism-is-my-superpower-like-greta-thunberg

Steve Silberman, ‘Greta Thunberg became a climate activist not in spite of her autism, but because of it’ https://www.vox.com/first-person/2019/5/6/18531551/greta-thunberg-autism-aspergers

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