Greta Thunberg was recently named Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, which makes her the first ever openly-autistic Person of the Year. This, as you can imagine, is kind of a Big Deal to the autistic community worldwide.
It is always dangerous to attempt to speak for a whole group of people, so let me just explain why it’s important to me, and we can extrapolate from there.
Conspiracy theories aside, Thunberg started from a humble point– a declaration of her own Friday “School Strike,” but it is her single-mindedness, dedication, and courage that has catapulted her into the global spotlight and sparked a global movement that has an energy and a force beyond her own actions.
“Restricted interests and repetitive behaviour” is part of the diagnostic criteria for autism. It is infantilised, patronised, and pathologised. Yet Greta Thunberg’s dedication to her own Special Interest — climate change — shows us how misunderstood this perspective on autism really is.
What if we enabled every autistic person to live up to their potential by encouraging them to explore their passions as deeply as they desire? What if, instead of shaming autistics for their interests — that can often be considered “inappropriate” for age or gender (or just plain weird) — we recognised that an autistic passion for a subject can achieve great things, either in the world or through internal satisfaction that may not be achievable in any normative way?
Autistic people quickly learn to expect rejection and criticism in life. Thunberg has made waves and predictably has been met with a barrage of abuse, related to her youth, related to her sex, related to her general presentation and vocal intonation. The fact that she has been honoured by Time Magazine shows us that we are one step closer to acceptance, but it’s still a long road ahead.
Thunberg’s polarising influence comes as a direct result of her autistic traits. At her core, she is passionate and empathetic — she values truth and the greater good over being liked, smiling for the camera, and sugar-coating the logical consequences of inaction on carbon emissions. She is saying nothing new, but something in the way she is saying it has motivated millions around the world to action.
Her message has been simple and unchanging from the start: listen to the science. That in itself is not a controversial thing to say, but our “Emperor’s New Clothes” society teaches us that bluster and performance trumps truth and action.
It is scary and unnerving when someone speaks the truth that everyone has been scrambling to avoid looking directly at. A 16 year old who can stand up in front of the UN and say with conviction and anger, “How dare you!” to world leaders, has this power because of her autism, not in spite of it.
She looks directly at the Emperor and declares him naked.
We all have that power inside, but it is held back by constant reinforcement that we are broken, something is wrong, we are too intense, too dedicated, too much.
What could we, as autistic humans, achieve if the power within us were harnessed? Certainly not all of us — or even most of us — would achieve Greta-like levels of fame and influence. But so many autistic people have something about them that’s truly remarkable, whether it’s their talent for art, music, writing, memory, massage, offbeat humour, making sense of chaos, noticing mistakes, working with animals, seeing patterns– or just plain speaking the truth.
Not all these talents are valued in a world where your value depends on your ability to make money. But an autistic person fulfilling their potential makes them a hero to all of us.
We don’t need autistic heroes that we raise up as god-like and knock down when they dare to act human. We need autistic empowerment so the world can see the value that the autistic perspective brings to humanity.
- Greta Thunberg is named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. Is this the hero we need? — December 12, 2019
- Coming to Terms with an Autism Diagnosis: Sam Stein interviews Rees Finlay about his Upcoming Graphic Novella — October 31, 2019
- Demisexuality and autism — September 30, 2019