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Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg
Photography Luciana Riso

Young people with Asperger syndrome on the power of Greta Thunberg

The climate activist is proud of her Asperger’s, yet right-wing pundits continue to weaponise it – we speak to young people with the condition about their own life experience

In an impassioned speech at the UN climate summit last Monday, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg condemned world leaders for their “empty words” which undermine the climate emergency we are faced with. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she said. “How dare you.”

Her message of decisive action on the climate crisis should be one we can all unite behind. Yet, her opponents – namely middle-aged men disgruntled at the quiet, astute authority of a 16-year-old girl – continue to undermine her. She has been described as a pawn controlled by her domineering parents and the political left, ridiculed and mocked online. At a time when Generation Z are rising up to resist the ills of those in power, peacefully campaigning to make the world a better place just isn’t to everyone's liking, it seems.

Not just challenging the young activist for her environmental message, some critics on the right are ghoulishly questioning her mental health. This week, right-wing pundit Michael Knowles described her as a “mentally ill Swedish child” on air, with Fox News host Laura Ingraham comparing the teen activist to the murderous youths in the horror film Children of the Corn just hours later.

Thunberg is vocal about her experience of Asperger’s Syndrome, having in the past described it as her “superpower”. Asperger’s is defined as a condition on the Autism Spectrum that affects social interaction. Thunberg has said that she believes it has helped her in delivering a clear and decisive message on climate action. “I have Asperger’s, and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower”.

The power and pride Thunberg has shown in herself has proved an inspiration to many others with Asperger’s; saving the world and tackling the stigma attached to the condition on a global scale, which around 1 in 100 people in the UK alone live with. In light of this, we spoke to a few young people with Asperger’s syndrome about their own lived experiences, their thoughts on Thunberg as a role model, and whether they too see it as a “superpower”.

FINN, CORK

“When people would attack Greta for having Asperger's, it chipped away at me for a long time because it in turn hurts anyone on the spectrum”

“I got diagnosed with Asperger's when I was 17, going into my last year of school. It really caused an identity crisis in a way because someone saying that you think differently than other people and there’s a reason for it was a very daunting thought to deal with at that age.

When people would attack Greta for having Asperger’s, it chipped away at me for a long time because it in turn hurts anyone on the spectrum. I’ve never revealed I have Asperger’s to many people or spoken publicly about it. But seeing the type of ignorance I’ve experienced in my own life when it comes to my Asperger’s but now on such a big scale when it comes to Greta has got me to speak openly about my diagnosis, and to stop caring about what anyone has to say. In my opinion, Greta having Asperger’s and speaking about climate is no different than Lionel Messi who has Asperger’s being a UNICEF ambassador. A diagnosis doesn’t mean he or Greta don't know what they are talking about.”

TOM, 29, NOTTINGHAM

“Asperger’s has – and continues to – affect me in various ways, both negatively and positively. From finding everyday conversations alien, to being in environments that make me feel both panicky and uncomfortable, it can often be a daily struggle to keep all of my anxieties in order.

Despite the difficulties I face on a regular basis, I do find that Asperger’s has been a blessing in some aspects of my daily life, such as relationships, especially as I’ve grown order. Although I may struggle with everyday tasks many of us would find normal and easy, such as cooking, routine, and putting appliances together, I learn more about myself with each passing day, and I am proud of the person who I am today.

With the greatest of respect, I don't view my Asperger’s as a “superpower”, but in actual fact I look at it as a gift. I see it as a blessing that, although it may hinder me in certain areas, it gifts me with abilities in other areas other people may not have. I see it as a part of me that makes me the person who I am today, and if I was offered the chance to not have my Asperger’s, I would immediately turn it down because I would be a completely different person without it. My belief is that Asperger’s individuals can become successful and live happy, prosperous lives, but it is ultimately up to the person with the right support around them to achieve that. Life is about taking the bull by the horns, and it is up to you to go out there and make the best of it. Work hard, be compassionate, and most importantly be yourself. Be proud of who you are, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed. Every day, I wake up with the mindset that Asperger’s is a part of me whether I like it or not, and I accept both the positive attributes and flaws about myself. 

Whilst I respect the right we all have to free speech and our own opinions, I believe the attacks on Greta have been distasteful and reprehensible. To verbally attack a person for their disability is completely wrong in my eyes. I personally believe that we can learn a lot from Greta, not just on the growing issue of climate change, but on how we view everyone on the Autism spectrum as a whole. Thanks to Greta, Asperger’s has been thrown into the limelight and more awareness of the disability has been shown both in the public eye and on social media, which can only be a positive in my book. I’m personally proud of her to speak up and talk openly about an issue that is close to her heart, and I look forward to seeing what she does in the near future.”

SOLOMON, 19, LONDON

“My Asperger’s affects me most in social and work settings. I am quite shy, but also can be quite loud when I’m confident. I also struggle with anxiety and I take a long time being a perfectionist when I write, or make decisions. I think mostly my Asperger’s feels like quite a burden, that’s why the label is important. But also, I can be more focused and take my time on my artwork and personal projects than most people.

I think people with ASD often have certain fixations where it’s possible to feel much more comfortable. That’s got to be true with Greta Thunberg. I saw in the news that someone called her something like a ‘mentally ill child’, which took me a while to even register as a reference to ASD. It just shows more lack of understanding of the real issues. If you listen to her talk you can see that she has a good understanding of everything she talks about. She shouldn’t be attacked on the basis of autism. She’s not claiming to be a scientist, she’s just like any activist, which is why people are connecting to her message.”

LOGAN, SCOTLAND

“I’m proud of being autistic (and) having Asperger’s – it makes me who I am and makes my brain work in an extremely particular way that I wouldn’t want to change”

“Being given a diagnosis about what kind of person I was helped save my life at a young age. I didn’t know what was happening in my head and then it all made sense, I was able to get support from family and institutions to help me live my life. I’m proud of being autistic (and) having Asperger’s – it makes me who I am and makes my brain work in an extremely particular way that I wouldn’t want to change. I wouldn’t call it my ‘superpower’ explicitly but it is fundamental to my success and my individuality, and I don’t know what I’d be without it. I think the discourse is toxic and still based too much around parents and anti-vaxxers, which makes being openly autistic very difficult at times. Greta’s openness is helping certain people understand, which I’m thankful for. But it’s brought out a lot of hatred that I’ve tried to avoid for the last few years. I think there’s a lot of work to be done but I’m not afraid of anyone.”

RACHEL, 20, LONDON

“Asperger’s affects every aspect of my life. It’s not something you can really separate from the person you are – I wouldn’t be me without my Asperger’s, and you can’t pull it apart from my personality. But for me, I can find it difficult to manage certain things. I need to process stuff at my own pace, so decision making can be stressful. Social situations are the most challenging; I have high anxiety around people, especially if they’re new. It does make me a very logical person, however, and that’s something that runs through everything I do.

I think with anybody, we all have an internal battle to come to terms with who we are, what makes us tick, how we love and live with ourselves. I’d be lying to say I haven’t struggled with my identity, particularly being autistic, but there is something about how we think differently from most that’s a strength. There’s a clarity that comes from feeling like an outsider, and for sure, my Asperger’s has felt like I have a power to see the stuff others don’t.

Complex ideas can seem simpler – not that the things aren’t complex – just that I can cut through all the unnecessary extra air around them and dive straight into what’s important. Even if socially the world is confusing and I feel lost, I can find so much depth and meaning in my understanding of myself and others, and things do just sort of fit into place. I like to think about things, and I’m good at it. There’s always a solution to be found.

It’s incredibly frustrating to see so many autistic people undermined and invalidated purely off of their autism. People with disabilities are continuously not being listened to. I think anyone with an anti climate change agenda will take anything they can to tear apart and degrade Greta, but it’s her message we should all be listening to. What she is saying is important and her defiance to those who stoop so low is inspiring. Ultimately to suggest her Asperger’s disqualifies her ideas or credibility, just goes to show the lack of understanding those people have about Asperger’s, and perpetuates infantilism and ableism of autistic people.”