Two autistic voices have risen to prominence in the mainstream media: Greta Thunberg, teen climate change activist, and Kodi Lee, the blind autistic musician and singer who recently won the popular show, America’s Got Talent.
Both of these autistic young people are amazing, but this article isn’t about them or their achievements. This article is about the reaction from the general public and my autistic perspective about those reactions.
I want to talk about how social biases regarding autistic people are wrong and why. There’s a lot of disconnect between the language of the autistic community (autistic people), the autism community (family members of autistics and professionals who work with autistics), and the mainstream (people with no significant connection to autism).
One of the first things someone entering the autistic community will realize is that no one uses the phrases “high functioning,” “low functioning,” “mild,” or “severe” to describe autistic people. They will talk about the severity of certain traits, like hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to sound) or executive dysfunction (impaired ability to organize, plan, and perform complex, multi-step tasks).
Or, one might come across autistics discussing among themselves how severely disabling something related to being autistic is. They may say that their social anxiety is severely disabling, or their apraxia (disrupted ability to coordinate motor movements of the mouth for speech or the body for gross and fine motor movements) is severely impacting their ability to work.
But, what you won’t see is discussion of how “autistic” these traits make someone. There’s no separation of “mild” or “severe.” Being autistic means you have certain differences from the neural majority and that those differences don’t make you more or less autistic.
Career or not, relationship or not, independently-living or not, co-occurring conditions, etc.– none of that matters in the autistic community. What you are is what you are. We understand we have different struggles and strengths, and we talk about our relation to those specifically, but never how that makes someone “more” or “less” autistic.
Because if Kodi Lee were online, you wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from the rest of us. His limited speech and atypical inflection, the compulsive way he laughs after speaking many times, are not reflective of his understanding or ability to construct sentences.
Not being able to produce reliable speech doesn’t mean someone isn’t able to understand words and complicated ideas. They’re just not always able to verbally communicate fluently because that requires coordination of several parts of the brain and the motor movements to regulate volume, pitch, speed, and tone.
Sometimes, the words come out close to what the speaker intended. For example, during Kodi Lee’s audition for the show, he answered the question about what he was going to be doing by saying, “I’m going to sing a song for you… on the piano.”
For this same reason, many autistics are unable to speak at all, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand language and communicate in a different way.
A lot of people like Kodi Lee who have atypical speech prefer to write or type first and then read what they have typed aloud because that is easier for them than spontaneous speech.
Many nonspeakers and those with unreliable speech are prolific writers.
But Greta Thunberg has relatively typical speech. She can get confounded, lose her train of thought, and make atypical facial expressions, too. In this video, especially in the second half, she begins to lose her focus and is struggling to find the words at times.
For an autistic person, this is totally normal. Autistic people watch this and understand. We get it. We don’t filter out all the background noise and movement, so busy environments like that, plus fatigue, make it hard to focus.
You’ll also notice that she begins to stim more with her hands. Stimming is repetitive movements or sounds that autistic people do to help them stay regulated. Kodi Lee rocks back and forth as a stim.
But let’s walk through some some of the reactions to Kodi and Greta. First, look at how people discussed Kodi’s parents versus how they discussed Greta’s parents:
[Warning: many comments referenced in this article contain disturbing ableism. Reader discretion advised.]
Kodi Lee’s Parents
Greta Thunberg’s Parents
Facial Expressions and Body Language:
Kodi Lee and Greta Thunberg both have facial expression differences from what neurotypicals expect when they are interacting with each other. Most people communicate more through tone, body language, facial expressions, and implications than they do through spoken words.
But autistic people don’t. Many autistics have less neural and motor control of our facial expressions and the movements of our bodies, and we’re often unaware of what our faces and bodies do when we’re communicating.
If an autistic person’s speech is as different as Kodi Lee’s, then their different mannerisms are overlooked or excused because they are seen as being “severely affected.” If an autistic person has speech that is fluent like Greta’s, then those same atypical facial expressions are seen as menacing or a sign of mental illness.
Though Kodi Lee has very different facial expressions compared to most people, I tried over 50 different combinations of search queries on Twitter and found no references to them, but there were over 100,000 Tweets talking about Greta’s autistic facial expressions.
Here are a few:
Other words used to describe Greta’s facial expressions: fiendish, deranged, crazy, psycho, disturbed, plastic, sick, mental, and a few words I won’t dignify by repeating them.
Even the United States President weighed in with a mocking jab:
Kodi and Greta: On Fame
Another way to see the differences in how Kodi and Greta have been regarded by the general population is in how people talk about fame. Here is what people had to say about Kodi on the subject:
By all standards, Kodi Lee deserves these comments. They are supportive and wonderful, and autistic people need support from non-autistic folk. Thank you to those who supported and voted for Kodi. In Kodi’s case, he did implicitly ask for votes, and so people supported him the way he asked to be supported. That’s ideal for autistics.
Here’s what people have to say about Greta’s fame:
So Why the Difference in Reception?
One could make the argument that Greta is being antagonized because of controversial political messaging. Yes, that’s responsible for some of the antipathy against her. On the other hand, some of the lack of antagonism against Kodi Lee is because marginalized people have always been allowed and accepted to be entertainers and performers.
One need not look beyond the example of American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick or basketball great LeBron James to see what happens when an entertainer points out oppression or takes a stand on a social justice issue.
But, in Greta’s case, the same autistic behaviors that Kodi Lee exhibits are what are used against her to invalidate and insult her and to paint her parents as negligent.
Autistics know this plays out in life. Kodi Lee is an adult, a twenty-two year old man, yet there is almost no mention of him without someone lauding his parents. Believe me, as an autistic person, I appreciate his parents to the moon and back. I could write whole articles on what they did right. They are amazing.
So are Greta’s parents, for the same reasons.
Autistic people are passionate, and they’re not wired to be multi-taskers. They are wired for specialization, to find a groove and hone it and go with it. We dream of being the hero, just like everyone else and maybe more. Not for fame, not for money, not for anything other than leaving an indelible mark on the world.
Kodi Lee may seem like he leads a tragic existence to many people– and I’m sure he does suffer like all of the greatest people do– but he can do things only about 25 people in the world can do. He has total audiographic memory recall. He can remember every note to every song he’s ever heard and play it. He has perfect pitch.
Every person reading this is disabled compared to Kodi Lee.
Kodi’s mother has written about how Kodi was miserable before finding himself in music. At the piano, it’s clear to anyone that a visible shift and alignment happens for him. Greta has expressed how miserable she was before she found an avenue to put action to her passions.
Even though Kodi differs from Greta in that he is an adult, he is rarely mentioned without his mother being mentioned. This is called infantilization, or treating a disabled adult like a child because they have a disability.
On the converse, Greta is treated as if being autistic is more like having a personality disorder as opposed to a medical condition, as if her autistic nature and behaviors are an attempt to get attention.
Her passion, hyperfocus, and atypical body language are not regarded as autistic behaviors, but as signs of someone too fragile or too unreliable to be doing what she is doing. The long pauses or lost trains of thought in her speech are seen as evidence of mental breakdown instead of just being a normal part of being autistic and in an overstimulating environment.
But what makes Kodi and Greta both exceptional is their indomitable will. That is an autistic trait. They are both doing what they are wired to do– defiantly, against the status quo and social expectations of what people are “supposed to do.”
Both Kodi and Greta are doing exactly what they are wired to do, and that kind of passion being given room to grow– even if that space is made by elbowing through the fabric of society– is world-changing.
Their autistic nature is a disability. Their autistic nature is greatness. Both of those truths can exist at the same time.
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- Who Am I? Printable Resource for Connecting with Your Core Self - October 3, 2022
This sums up so well the triumphs and the setbacks we face, based not on who we are, but on society’s perceptions of who we are.
I agree with everything you wrote here. It’s alarming to see the absolute vitriol aimed at Greta. I dared post about her on my page and inadvertently started a political sh*tstorm! But, Kodi Lee is alright because he’s an entertainer? No, that is biased and wrong.
Also, “The hate on her face is repulsive” referring to Greta. Why is it repulsive? Is she not allowed to show honest emotion? People do feel anger, rage, and hate. This is not a criminal act. If it was, Trump would have been arrested before he could take office! Double standard!
Such an interesting dialog which you’ve presented herein Terra.
Thank you for your insight.
You write so direct and wonderful. Kudos!
A month later…
People shooting barbs at Greta and her Parents over the occasional anger in her speeches are missing the point. Anyone with her perseverance deserves to get a bit angry when addressing global groups of Politicians doing nothing at all about a Changing Climate.
Greta and her own activism is the reason why I was referred to your Aspergian site and dialog months ago. I am herein learning a lot about Autism which I formerly knew nothing about, simply by reading people’s personal stories amid pointed missives written by this site’s Founder. Thank you Terra for creating this public discussion…
And little Greta? I think she is simply doing her own thing!!!
I don’t believe that her Parents are guiding her nor writing her speeches. Greta’s Parents have changed their own habits, gone vegan, don’t fly in polluting jet airplanes anymore and have really learned Scientific Climate FACTS from their own young daughter who has formed her own opinions relative to REAL & DIRE Consequences.
Greta is no longer the little quiet Girl sitting in the back of the room. Her stepping out to sit with her painted Sign on her Govt’s sidewalk — was responded to “in like kind” by week #2 of her own Friday School Strike Protest. This is a little [formerly quiet] Autistic Student who beat her own deep depression by choosing to stand up for what she believed to be a warming, stormy earth crashing around her — while Politicians and Adults continue doing nothing while this planet warms to its tipping point… There is NO Planet “B.”
Smog is an OIL SPILL IN THE SKY folks!!! This Warming [oily] Earth which we are ALL facing is because of the emissions of nearly 8 billion people combusting fossil fuels. Greta points out this “fossil EMISSIONS problem” ten times in her first eleven minute public TEDx presentation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2QxFM9y0tY
She’s wired to her own core beliefs and this Planet of Environmentalists and globally-aware Youth simply needed someone to stand up and follow. Listen to her short talk at the URL above – then form your own opinions.
So interesting that it was a Autistic, tiny, 16 yr. old, quiet, yet determined Girl who chastises business people for putting Profits before the Planet so that they can continue to make “unimaginable amounts of money.”
One autistic person more or less confirms the implicit biases of the masses and acts as their comfort food inspiration porn and the other actually challenges their misconceptions about how strong and badass autistic people can be. I think it’s pretty obvious why people fawn over Kodi while they criticize Greta. They do the same thing to the Autistic Community and ND Movement. This isn’t to knock Kodi but it does show that people are biased and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
I’ve long admired Greta Thunberg for her purity and honesty. It seems to me that no other person but an autistic could continue to focus so fully on the issue of climate change when there is so much distraction all around. For each person who aims hate at her, there are so many who are inspired by her and are trying to follow her example.
I appreciate your article a lot. I’m a mom of an autistic son and I’m learning from this blog about how the distinction between “high” and “low” functioning is really irrelevant and inaccurate. This is helping me understand my son and my students better. Many thanks for all the education you are providing in this blog.
I just wondered if you have ever heard of ‘Blind’ Tom Wiggins. Look him up. I have included him in my Black History Months list of achievers
This is a brilliant piece. I particularly admired the way that you point out that disabled people are accepted and even lauded as entertainers, but effectively unwelcome in politics and “real life”. Telling, that.
As a fan of Thunberg, and a fellow obsessive about climate and ecology, I am irked by the ignorance in the way rightwing media use autism as an invalidation of the actual, evidence-based arguments presented. People such as Piers Morgan and Trump etc are clearly so ignorant about autism as to be unaware how we prioritise logic and evidence above cliches and brainwashing. We’re easier to lie to, individually, but harder to hide scientific truth from, when the evidence is out there for us to find. Speaking for myself, I have very low tolerance for cognitive dissonance and don’t blindly follow a belief-herd. I change my mind according to the evidence available. Hegemonic programming is a really effective tool for the neurotypical population, and accusing Thunberg of being programmed somehow is dirty old transference in action!
I have been involved in green actism over the years, and it’s interesting how few activists seem “normal”. When “normal” means compliance with a toxic and destructive system, it’s up to the anomalous to lead the way to a better world.
Thanks again for this hopeful piece. Excuse the rant, but you’ve made my day! Needed this.
Her age also seems to be a sticking point for the right, as well as some even loopier groups. There’s a frankly alarming amount of comments floating around along the lines of “if a 16-year old is old enough to inform government policy, why can’t we have sex with one without being branded pedophiles?”
I only wish I was making this up.
God, that’s nauseating!!
Ugh. So bizarre anyway, this unwritten consensus that old (white) men are wise policy makers, whereas teenagers (using evidence and facts over rhetoric) are not worthy of hearing. For example, A Levels are such rigorous courses, and teenage brains are sharp and great at reasoning and recall. It’s aging that makes many people rely heavily on prejudice rather than facts and logic.
Yep, that’s the ageism talking. The possibility that the aforementioned old men might be inadequate for current issues is something they refuse to think about because they’re so sure the whippersnappers don’t know anything.
Great article. I kept waiting for a mention of what’s (to me) the most obvious reason why they are treated differently, aside from the entertainer v. activist part— sexism.
Disappointing in an article about stigma against autistic people to find stigma against people labelled “personality disordered”.
What right do autistic people have to expect people to believe them when they explain their lifes, if autistic people then turn around to invalidate the experiences of other traumatised people and call their expression of distress “attention seeking”?
It’s deeply disappointing to see one group of abused people point to another group of abused people just to say: “They’re the bad ones, they lie. We’re the good suffering people, you should believe us”
I’m not sure that was the intent. Societies perception of personality disorders particularly borderline and histrionic personality disorders have always linked attention seeking behaviours as some means to invalidate women. What is becoming obvious in recent studies is that there is a cross over of behaviour traits between Asperger’s and borderline personality disorders. As more women are being diagnosed with Autism later in life the misdiagnosis of BPD and it’s misperception as attention seeking has began to challenge the whole concept that women have histrionic episodes that are somehow not real. I read this sentence on Greta being treated as though she is personality disordered and therefore attention seeking in that light. I am not sure the writer is saying that personality disorders are attention seeking but that rather those uneducated about Autism (and personality disorders) are still in that state of dismissing intelligent women, in particular, as simply being overly emotional, histrionic, attention seeking and unbalanced personalities whose views are invalid. I don’t think there was any inference to personality disorders as bad and autism as good. It was an indictment on how society has historically and presently still classifies women who are outspoken as personality disordered. That comment towards Greta harms both the Autistic community and those with personality disorders whose suffering by and large goes unacknowledged and undetected. I am sorry your feelings were hurt as there definitely should be a common bond given the judgement we face for similar behaviour traits.
It is shocking to see all the misconceptions about Greta’s family that are repeated across the world. As a Swedish mother of two Autistic children I have followed her family struggling with life in the public eye for many years, and her parents have given everything for their children. Her father gave up his career years ago to be a full time father while the mother, as an international opera star, worked to support the family. Recently she only works close to home because of her family situation and they get by, but are in no way super rich or benifitting economically from the situation. During the 2015 refugee crisis the mother took a public stand for supporting refugees and the far right groups trashed her across the internet for it and that makes the family the focus for alt right hatred since. This needs to be known to the world so we can understand the whole picture here.
No surprise that Donald-Ugly-Ass-Hair-Trump starts sh*t talking,1 :a girl!,2, voice crying out in warning of apocalyptic climate change,3 Neurodiverse!
Many of the attacks on Greta are part of a directed campaign–her ASD is simply a distinguishing feature that allows a bit more of a targeted attack. She is up against –and threatens–billions in profits. Even the Guardian, supposedly a left wing paper, has posted articles about Greta where her ASD was used detrimentally against her.
Now this is fascinating. If I’ve been following anti-autistic online trolls who used to acknowledge climate change who now are deniers … Would it be reasonable to conjecture they’re paid influencers?
I don’t think it’s likely they’re paid. My guess would be they pick their stance so that it’s the opposite to the one proclaimed by someone from the demographic they despise – no matter what stance it ends up being.
I am actually surprised by how many Autistic people and Autism parents there are that buy into the ‘exploited Autistic child’ theme with Greta because they either disagree with climate change or because they believe Autistic people are unable to think for themselves. I am on a number of Autism pages and the hatred and ableist comments are astounding. Most of the arguments totally lack logic ie abusive parents; brainwashed; mentally unwell little girl. She is a few months short of 17 years old that is not a little girl or a child. She went from not eating and not speaking to being able to rally the youth of the world. Most teenagers would not climb on a tiny boat with a bucket toilet and no space or privacy and neither would many Autistic adults who do not like change and being out of their comfort zone. To me it all speaks of a fairly strong willed young person who has found their own path.
I was every bit that firm in my resolve and conviction in kindergarten. You?
Hell yes. It’s why I get so angry when people start using the ‘poor child what is going to become of her when the exploiters abandon her?’ I’m like hello how many children do you know? How come Greta’s not entitled to an opinion because she’s not a climate expert and yet you have an opinion on children which you believe is fact when you are clearly not an expert on child development? Some people with Autism are shy and trusting but that can also be about temperament. Many Autistic people have had to study people’s faces as young children to learn how to reciprocate and thus become early bullshit detectors. They know when they are being conned and you have to put up a pretty bloody strong argument to get them to do anything. I have two sons with Autism aged 7 and 9 and have Autism myself. You’d get none of us on that boat unless we really wanted to go. I could not just fob off my sons fears with ‘here is a bottle of “magic begone climate change” spray.’ They’d want facts and more facts and they’d better be plausible facts backed by science. They watch the children’s news and have political views that are not mine. They are not going to suddenly mature and develop critical thinking on their 18th birthday, as that journey began long ago, just as Greta’s did, and Autism didn’t impair it, it has enhanced their question and drive for logic.
My opinion on this is that it’s even bigger than ableism and shows solid signs of sexism and racism here. Maybe she’s just not sexy enough, or American enough too? As a person who grew up a woman, I found it frustrating that all the way up to my late twenties, my opinions were seen as those of a childlike person. Then suddenly as I turned 30 they had more weight. It was a curious and frustrating occurrence. But still, even as and older female presenting person, I find that the males like to think that their (often half baked) opinions are more valid than my facts.
Women, bame(poc), disabled, neurodivergent…maybe we are just supposed to be pleasing to the eye and quietly entertain people in a prescribed manner? They sure like to jump all over us when we speak the truth.
Hi Terra, I’m taking a little social media break but you can get in touch with me about what we were talking about earlier today. If you go onto my site http://www.ingridwonders.com and use the contact information link that will put us in touch and we can go from there. 🙂
I hope it is OK to add my voice here and say that if you do not know much about autism, and most people do not, it is much easier to understand Kodi’s autism than Greta’s autism. The world is more ready to give consideration to Kodi than to Greta. I find that even many professionals in the field have a difficult time understanding profiles of autistic kids who have significant cognitive strengths and present more “typical.” The way she is bullied for her autistic traits is appalling. But she is really being bullied because of her views, fearlessness, and the stand she is taking, because she is a strong young woman, and because she is different… in one word, she is seen as a threat, and bullied by those who do not know how to have a dignified intellectual discussion and have to resort to nastiness.
Yes, and race and gender. If Greta were a guy, this would be very different, even with the exact autistic characteristics she displays.
The absolute worst hatred against Greta Thunberg has been from Michael Savage, Michael Knowles and Ben Shapiro. The shit those trolls say about her is atrocious. Even Fox News had the decency to ban Knowles from appearing again after he called her a “mentally ill Swedish child”. What’s even worse is how these political extremists’ followers agree with them on everything and stand by them no matter what.