The last few months of public interest in Greta Thunberg has proved to be an interesting time—particularly for autistics.
Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental difference that affects how a person communicates, processes information and interacts with the world. Around 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic, so chances are you know someone who is.
Many autistic people see autism as a core part of our identity, influencing how we perceive and navigate the world. It is strange to observe, then, that while Thunberg is one of the most prominent public autistic people of our time, so much of both the praise and positivity about her consistently ignores that she is autistic.
What is less surprising is how criticisms of Greta quickly sink to ableism, calling her a “mentally ill Swedish child,” or calling her facial expressions “deranged.” There have even been a few references to “meltdowns,” ranging from comparing them to tantrums to outright goading her into them—which is particularly loaded as meltdowns are a specific autistic reaction to overwhelming situations.
The strangeness for me arises with the outpourings of praise, much of which skirts around any mention of autism. After her appearance at the UN Climate Summit, I began to notice a trend of adult women praising Greta’s seriousness or apparent refusal to smile as though it were some act of Lean In-esque feminism and not tied to her autistic-ness.
Intense passion about a particular subject, heart-on-your-sleeve emotions, and bluntness of speech are hallmarks of autism, especially in Asperger’s syndrome—part of the autism spectrum—which is what Greta refers to when she speaks about herself. Greta herself has rightly asserted that, given the right circumstances, autistic people can use their strengths—such as passion, thoroughness, willingness to research a topic until we know everything we can about it, a strong sense of justice—to flourish.
Yes, Thunberg isn’t engaging in gendered-female behavioural standards enforced by the patriarchy, but she is also displaying a number of obviously autistic traits: her lack of smiling may in part because many autistic people have reduced or “strange” (to non-autistics, at least) facial expressions, but also, she’s incredibly serious about what she’s saying, so why would she couch it?
When her Asperger’s is highlighted to those aforementioned praisers, many of them double back, saying that it shouldn’t matter, or it isn’t relevant. But it is. I imagine that non-autistics may be wary of painting her as Inspirationally Disadvantaged, a trope that disabled people often fall into. Yet to applaud her and yet not recognise her autistic-ness is to only see some of her many facets, and to ignore a core part of her person.
My main concern is whether these same people are making the connection between Greta’s behaviour and that of the blunt, slightly-odd and brusque woman in their office, or at the school gates, or even in their family. While Thunberg’s passion and willingness to point at complacency are praised, this reverence does not necessarily play out for adult autistics, who are often seen as “difficult” or “too blunt.”
I was formally diagnosed in my late twenties and, unfortunately, these traits more often than not got me in trouble in the workplace because I was seen as uppity, going above my station, or disruptive for pointing out logical inconsistencies.
My story is not unusual. Autistic women are hit with the double whammy of misogyny and ableism for stepping beyond behavioural standards—which are enforced by non-autistic men and women alike—and are punished for it.
This is further complicated by the fact that we know that autistic women are under-diagnosed in part due to a persistent belief that autism was only a boys’ problem but also because of masking, in which autistics adjust their behaviour to adapt to a non-autistic world, which can have devastating effects on mental health and is a strong predictor of suicide risk.
Being an autistic adult is difficult and often confusing, and many of us lack support, which is usually tailored towards children. We know autism doesn’t end at eighteen, and yet there continues to be an insistence through the (un)availability of services that it does.
What I and other autistic people want is for non-autistics to see Thunberg wholly, to see her brilliance and strengths, to recognise the challenges of being autistic in a non-autistic world, and to apply that new understanding to other autistic people. Treading that line when you are unfamiliar with autism is tricky territory, but the answer to this is, of course, to listen to and read work by autistic people.
Being publicly autistic is somewhat permissible in 2019, but it is always punished—you only have to look at criticisms of Hannah Gadsby and Chris Packham to see the same patterns arise. Bullies will always zero in on a person’s difference, even if you’re a sixteen-year-old girl clearly trying to make the world a better place.