Greta Thunberg is named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. Is this the hero we need?3 min read

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.


  1. Samdy,

    Well said and thank you for com­menting on TIME Magazine’s choice of little, opin­ion­ated school­girl Greta for person of the year.

    What this “little quiet one in the corner” has accom­plished through her own per­sonal courage and con­vic­tion is some­thing to behold.

    Her short five-minute speech two daze ago to those assem­bled at the COP25 gath­ering in Madrid can be viewed at the URL below.

    Carbon Bridge

  2. I’m sorry, but you are speaking only for you. I don’t admire her, I don’t think she’s accom­plished very much except to par­tic­i­pate in the same hypocrisy that Hollywood-types do when they preach envi­ron­men­talism while living a lifestyle that is any­thing but (do as I say, not as I do). Because of that and a host of other rea­sons, she is not a role model for me, a female aspie, and I don’t see her fame changing how people find me uncom­fort­able to be around but can’t quite artic­u­late why (except that it is never for my obses­sions or repet­i­tive habits).

    1. She is no more of a Hollywood type than you are. , so I cannot help but wonder if your objec­tions are less about her and more about her mes­sage.

    2. Yep, you are just griping about your own prob­lems while Greta cares about the entire f*cking planet!

  3. She’s my hero

    1. She’s mine too

  4. Great article Sam.

  5. I saw a copy of the mag­a­zine in the library and I asked my dad to take my photo with it. It was the first time I had ever seen an autistic person like me on the cover of some­thing big like this.

    I don’t follow the cli­mate crisis news closely because of my anx­iety issues. But I am so happy that we have people like Greta speaking out. I hope she achieves every­thing she wants to do.

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