Sixteen-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been the target of substantial bullying – and not just about her groundbreaking campaigning. Even Greta’s facial expression and tone of voice have been criticised, with one individual on social media describing her as ‘disturbed’ for displaying what many recognise as autistic characteristics.
The video accompanying the most recent prominent attack on Thunberg shows her eyes darting, looking to the ground, grimacing, and displaying body language which I recognise from my own experience as being indicative of sensory overwhelm. Any teenager being interviewed in front of a shrieking crowd in a foreign country after twelve days of travel across the Atlantic Ocean is likely to be anxious and uncomfortable, but for an autistic person this would likely be even more overwhelming.
Autism is a spectrum condition, meaning that although autistic people share certain characteristics, being autistic affects us in different ways. Asperger syndrome is an autistic profile developed in the 1980s which particularly impacts communication and relationships, though as language around autism and the diagnostic manuals changes, people are more likely to be given a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) rather than Asperger syndrome.
“Prior to my own diagnosis at age nineteen, I did not have any autistic role models. Any time autism was discussed, it was in a negative context”
Notably, autistic women are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with the condition. Not because fewer women are autistic per se, but because the condition can be harder to diagnose in women. There are several theories as to why this is, from the fact women are socialised differently to boys and therefore learn to ‘mask’ autistic traits, to the fact that doctors still find it hard to recognise autism in women and girls.
Prior to my own diagnosis at age nineteen, I did not have any autistic role models. Any time autism was discussed, it was in a negative context. Even now, when autistic women and girls are in the public eye – as Thunberg is – the public reaction to them is often unpleasant. When The Chase’s Anne Hegerty had an autistic meltdown on I’m A Celebrity this year, the public response was to call her hysterical. Representation and awareness are improving, however, through initiatives such as Women Beyond The Box, which profiles the top 50 neurodivergent women in the UK, but when the public response can be so cruel, is it any wonder that so few women are public about their diagnosis?
It must be said Thunberg has also received criticism from inside the autistic community, such as when described how “I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm… being different is a superpower.” The description of autism as a superpower falls into a narrative which many disabled people consider ableist because of its likeness to the ‘supercrip’ narrative, in which a disabled person works to overcome their disability. Combined with the ‘#aspiepower’ hashtag, such language creates discomfort – some diagnosed with Asperger syndrome attempt to distance themselves from being autistic, suggesting it is ‘better’ in some way than autism.
Thunberg also describes how “my diagnosis has limited me before”, and this is something I grapple with. By her own admission being autistic does not limit you, it just requires ‘the right circumstances’ – but it can be hard to find those environments if you don’t have a diagnosis and know about your condition. In my own experience, diagnosis has not limited me, it freed me. Ableism, in its many forms, is what limits me.
“As a young autistic activist, I have experienced first-hand some of criticisms Thunberg is facing, albeit on a far smaller scale”
Although autistic people have every right to be concerned about Greta’s language she uses to describe autism, the lack of perfect terminology is likely more reflective of Thunberg’s age and the fact she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome rather than ASD – not to mention she is also not using her first language to talk about the condition. I may be wrong, but I get the sense that Thunberg has not had much interaction with the autistic community, which is perhaps why she is less aware of the existing issues and nuance. For that I have great sympathy, as I was in a very similar place and had to do a significant amount of ‘unlearning’ about autism and what it means to be autistic.
As a young autistic activist, I have experienced first-hand some of criticisms Thunberg is facing, albeit on a far smaller scale. When interacting with media, where communication is so important, I have struggled to convey clearly my message, sometimes coming off as distant or not passionate. Oftentimes, my bluntness and refusal to pander or make the issues I talk about palatable, in a similar way to Greta, has resulted in me being literally and figuratively shouted down. On one notable occasion I was called a ‘disgustingly rude little girl’ for advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in workplaces and for talking about the issue bluntly.
Over the past few years, I have often asserted that those who criticise me for trying to change the world are the ones who have a vested interest in the world staying the same. With an issue as huge as climate change, where the problems lie not just in that of individuals, but in a system where political, social and economic revolution is needed, is it any surprise that a teenage girl whose message poses a threat to that is being personally attacked?
In the end, Greta said it best herself: “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!”
Ellen Jones is freelance writer and campaigner. Follow her on Twitter at @ellen__jones