A narrative of "inspiration porn" about autism

Autistic climate activist Greta Thunberg is perhaps getting carried away with her "autism is a superpower" narrative, veering into notions of autistic superiority and repeated cynicism of non-autistic people.

Some people in disability communities have talked about something referred to as "inspiration porn".

Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary - like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball - carrying a caption like "your excuse is invalid" or "before you quit, try". [Source: Stella Young, ABC]

Nas Campanella, national disability affairs reporter at the ABC, says:

reporting of people with a disability has been sensationalist: it’s either a “pity party” or “inspiration porn”, and she wants to change that. [Source: The Guardian]

Greta Thunberg is the climate activist who founded Fridays for Future, a global movement protesting inaction in addressing climate change. She also tries to advocate about autism, even calling it "a superpower".

Greta Thunberg has spoken about her Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis after she was criticised over the condition, saying it makes her a “different”, but that she considers it a “superpower”. [Source: The Guardian]
Thunberg has Asperger’s, which she calls her “superpower,” and which she says allows her to be more direct and straightforward about climate change. [Source: The Atlantic]

The branding makes me want to laugh, and it also makes me want to puke. (And I am autistic, by the way.) I would find it amusing, if it were not for the fact that I may have to encounter other autistic people who believe this narrative (who would probably not be bemused by my amusement), and that I may have to explain to other people, autistic or not, why I am not a fan of it.

Because Ms. Thunberg and her family have created so much of a public link between her acts of protesting and her autism diagnosis, the topic has become a bit more elevated in public dialogue:

In part because of her mother’s fame and the publicity that surrounded the publication of her book, Greta’s protest serves a dual purpose. It not only calls attention to climate policy, as she intended, but it also showcases the political potential of neurological difference. “I see the world a bit different, from another perspective,” she explained to me, in English. “I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.” [Source: New Yorker]

Ms. Thunberg, in the act of climate striking, is no more unique than the other people going on strike or organising protests. Activist Licypriya Kangujam, from India, in fact, began her climate protest before Ms. Thunberg did.

The most noticeable difference is that it did not catch on, in India, the way that Ms. Thunberg's protest caught on in Sweden and elsewhere. Perhaps it is worth considering that India and other countries in Asia may have slightly differing notions, relating to obedience and protest, than in Sweden. And maybe this contributed to the factor of whether many other people people joined or not.

Perhaps it was in relation to Ms. Thunberg striking every day for three weeks before continuing to strike every Friday. But it is worth keeping in mind that you do not have to be autistic to do this.

Maybe it is worth considering that it may not have been just because one activist was autistic.

Additionally, Ms. Thunberg and other climate activists may be unaware, but she rode on the waves of social media algorithms when she posted her strikes online and they caught on elsewhere.

#FridaysForFuture is a movement that began in August 2018, after 15-year-old Greta Thunberg and other young activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every schoolday for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral. [Source: Fridays for Future]

A number of other Fridays for Future activists also founded their respective local movements in this manner, such as Anuna de Wever, who co-founded Fridays for Future Belgium.

Yet as the documentary makes clear, Thunberg was far from alone in igniting the movement’s still-roaring flame. In December 2018, the day after Belgium neglected to sign a new declaration on addressing climate change at the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, then 17-year-old Belgian student Anuna de Wever was searching for organising strategies when they came across Thunberg’s approach. De Wever began drumming up local interest online before staging their first protest in the same mould two weeks later on the streets of Brussels. That protest became one of the first international branches of the school strike movement that would go on to sweep the globe.
“First there were 3,000 people, then 15,000, then 35,000 and Brussels became this international thing with journalists from all over Europe coming to interview us and understand how it happened,” de Wever remembers [Source: Vogue UK]


Ms. Thunberg does acknowledge that the success may be due to timing:

Why does she think she became famous? “I don’t know,” she says. “I guess it was just the right thing at the right timing . . . People were ready for this kind of thing, and then it just sort of [took] off. And one thing led to another and, yeah, it just ­spiralled out of control . . . or at least, out of what was reasonable.”  [Source: FT]

There are other factors suggested:

People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand. [Source: New York Times]

As surely as former U.S. President Donald Trump tapped into the grievance of people who feel that the political system is not serving their needs, Ms. Thunberg tapped into the frustrations of people who also feel that the political system is not working as well as they think it could.

She tapped into scientists' long-held exasperation of politics. She tapped into environmentalists' cynicism of economics. She tapped into the academic chamber that subconsciously sees the rest of the world as uneducated.

I mean, how could it be that a certain proportion of people of a particular persuasion don’t want to get vaccinated? That just doesn’t make any sense.” [...] “It really is a complication of an anti-science atmosphere that has evolved with a certain type of political persuasion … when you have a terrible pandemic looking you straight in the eye, you know, in some respects it is almost inexplicable, but unfortunately it’s happening. [— Dr Anthony Fauci, reported by The Guardian]
And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! [— Ms. Thunberg, source: The Guardian]
How can people be so stupid? — ABC journalist Joe O'Brien on January 21 in Australia talking with Planet America co-host Chas Licciardello, questioning how people believed the U.S. 2020 election was "stolen" by President Biden, in the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on 6 January, 2021. Indirect sources: Twitter, Twitter, Twitter]

It may be uncomfortable, but perhaps Ms. Thunberg serves the purpose for her supporters that Mr. Trump serves to his supporters; both figures are there because they speak what their base is thinking — bases that have grown tired of listening to their opposition, bases that are feeling suppressed, bases that are disengaged with standard political operations, bases that have fragmented across the "educated" and "uneducated" lines in Western society.

And there are other factors explored elsewhere:

Sabherwal’s paper found that people who had heard of Thunberg were likely to feel a stronger sense of “collective efficacy”, the belief that they could make a difference by acting together. The sample size was small — about 1,300 US adults — but Sabherwal thinks the effect may be even more pronounced in young people, who were not included in the survey. [Source: Financial Times]
But what if the Greta Thunberg effect is actually operating the other way? Did we instead find that people who are already more likely to act on climate change are just more familiar with Greta Thunberg? We can’t be certain because this type of study can’t prove cause and effect, it can only show associations. But statistical tests showed that this reverse explanation did not explain the data as well as our original one. Of course, reality may be more complex than what our models can capture. A positive feedback loop – where both explanations operate in tandem to inspire climate action – is also possible. [Source: The Conversation]

But when it comes to talking about autism, her narrative changes, and the dogma surfaces. Ms. Thunberg very often credits her success and the movement's success with the fact that she is autistic.

Four years ago, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s, on the autism spectrum, which helps explain her remorseless focus on the core issue of climate change after overcoming depression. “Being different is a gift,” she told Nick Robinson when interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. “It makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike for instance.”

HAHAHAHA.

The fact is, while the reasons that she started her protest may have been factors in her personal life that she attributes to autism, she was not at all unique in starting a climate protest, or a school strike for the climate for that matter, as demonstrated by Ms. Kangujam.

Ms. Thunberg may be more interested in a single topic, which is very common in autistic individuals. And she may have been less inhibited about striking, and less motivated to collaborate with other people, from being less privy to subtle social cues, which is also common in autistic individuals, and from being less worried about conformity in her case.

If I had been just like everyone else and been social, then I would have just tried to start an organisation. But I couldn’t do that. I’m not very good with people, so I did something myself instead. The Guardian

But if someone had been "like everyone else" (i.e. non-autistic, as she refers to), it is totally possible that that person may have started a strike, as Ms. Kangujam did. No one really knew yet that Ms. Thunberg was vegan, or that she was trying to minimise her carbon footprint, by refusing to fly or buy new clothes, when they joined her strike. (Though someone did give her pad thai that was vegan, which she ate, according to her father on BBC Radio.)

But most people did not know publicly, as accounts of her being vegan only really surfaced after the strikes had gained traction, and those people still joined her strike. In addition, Ms. Thunberg's narrative totally ignores the part on the people who joined her — if they were other children, this narrative does not include the fact that most schoolchildren, today, would have learnt about climate change, in some form, during their formative years in education.

Also, the "don't easily fall for lies" part is possibly misleading information about autistic people in general, if she keeps trumpeting it.

For example, 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame mentions being diagnosed with autism, and it, perhaps, helping to explain how she can have difficulty in picking out ulterior motives, and that being taken advantage of.

GRACE TAME: And I was diagnosed when I was 20, I think — high-functioning autistic. And so, like, organisation and control, and I've got like obsessive tendencies.
KURT FEARNLEY: How did that land on you, you know, when you're sitting down and you're identifying parts of yourself?
TAME: It certainly makes a lot of sense. You know, certain areas are, for me, heightened — certain behaviours are heightened and then others I feel, like, a disconnect around. I'm really bad at telling when people have an ulterior motive. I often don't pick up on like subtle, nuanced social behaviours. But yeah, on the other side of that, with the obsessive, sort of, perfectionism, I think that played into the anorexia a lot. [Source: Kurt Fearnley's One Plus One]

It doesn't mean that it's shameful — there's just a more nuanced picture of autism, out there, than the one that Ms. Thunberg is offering.

In a film called I Am Greta, Ms. Thunberg trumpets the speeches that she has made and the questions that she asks, as "seeing through the static" and attributes those to autism.

There’s a lot about her horses and dogs, something about her Asperger’s condition which she says gives her an ability to “see through the static”. Interesting – is it true? I would have liked to hear from a health professional. [Source: The Guardian]

(Before the next part about another interview on the film, it is worth noting that Ms. Thunberg claimed that initially she had not been open about her diagnosis, despite having mentioned it in a previous TEDxTalk and elsewhere.

She said she had not been open about her diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum in order to “hide” behind it, but because she knew “many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness’, or something negative”. [Source: The Guardian] )

But again, Ms. Thunberg reinforces notions about autistic superiority, that non-autistic people "[seem] to be content to role-play":

Even more astonishing is the nature of the figure at the centre of these events, for Thunberg is adamant that her condition – she freely acknowledges she is autistic – has played a critical role in helping her get her message across in a clear and simple manner. [...]
“People like me – who have Asperger’s syndrome and autism, who don’t follow social codes – we are not stuck in this social game of avoiding important issues.
“We dare to ask difficult questions. It helps us see through the static while everyone else seems to be content to role-play.”
Thunberg believes her condition helps her look at the world and see what others cannot, or will not, see. She dislikes small talk and socialising, preferring to stick to routines and stay “laser-focused”. [Source: The Guardian]

Asking difficult questions is not something that is unique to autistic people — non-autistic people are definitely capable of asking difficult questions — see the myriad of journalists.

But it's worth noting that she didn't make public speeches or "ask difficult questions" until the strikes had already began to gain ground, starting with the speech at the People's Climate March in Sweden.

So the part about attributing the ignition of the movement with Ms. Thunberg's autism, at least, is likely overblown. I would be careful about believing that narrative or spreading that narrative, without further investigation.

Even so, while the part about making "clear and simple" messages may be a preference of how some autistic people communicate,

Tony Attwood, a world authority on Asperger’s, has said people diagnosed are “usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice”.  [Source: The Guardian]

it doesn't actually mean that Ms. Thunberg's use of this messaging is necessarily automatically effective for her cause.

She also makes contradictory statements about simplification vs over-complication when it suits her narrative; both saying that she tends to overthink things (when it suited her to say how it helped her not let go of things) and also saying that other people tend to overthink things (when it suited her to say that her message was effective because it was simple.)

“I overthink. Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad. I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head.” The Guardian
What do you think is the specific quality of your communication that moves people? Is it a kind of wisdom? I don’t think I have any specific wisdom. I don’t have much life experience. One thing that I do have is the childlike and naïve way of seeing things. We [as a society] tend to overthink things. Sometimes the simple answer is, it is not sustainable to live like this. New York Times magazine

It also doesn't mean that all autistic people speak this way — for example, it was mentioned that I can often use circumstantial speech, in my own assessment.

As well as in the film, at two public speeches, including a TEDx Talk, and in her family's memoir, Ms. Thunberg has again credited her success as the movement's founder with her being on the autism spectrum:

For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren't very good at lying and we usually don't enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. Especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before.
I don't understand that, because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. [Source: TED]
“I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange,” she said at an Extinction Rebellion rally in London in 2018. “They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.” [Source: New Yorker and We Don't Have Time]

Firstly, I don't agree with calling non-autistic people "pretty strange" or even "a bit strange". That's using the same behaviour that others have employed to make autistic people feel alienated.

I think the saddest thing is that this illustrates that autistic people may be just as likely to treat non-autistic people the same way that they have been treated, if the odds were reversed (currently it is estimated that about 1 in 68 people are autistic.) Autistic people used to be subjected to punishment for stimming, or whatever was deemed undesirable.

Currently most of the diagnostic criteria for autism is still defined by social deficits, because it is defined relative to the majority non-autistic population. This is noticeably clear, for example, in Professor Attwood's book, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, where he describes that an autistic person's traits would disappear if you put them in a room by themselves.

Because of the viewpoint of social deficits, it is unsurprising that people like Professor Attwood himself have been involved in the idea of training autistic people's empathy, in another book, for example, called An Aspie's Guide to Empathy Attunement.

It is not surprising to me that Ms. Thunberg, in spreading the idea that autism is a superpower, sees non-autistic people as having their own deficit. What's worse is that because she sees it as a superpower, and talks about how it makes her worldview so great and how others' worldviews are so deficient, she does not challenge her own worldview.

This viewpoint of deficits is not uncommon — for example, Alexander Graham Bell saw deafness as a deficit and was greatly motivated for deaf people to learn how to speak.

Secondly, regarding Ms. Thunberg's declaration to speak "for those of us who are on the spectrum", it is acknowledged amongst some in the autistic community, that no two autistic people are alike, and others don't claim to speak on behalf of all autistic people.

I can't speak for all autistic people, but I can share my own ideas for what would be useful for me and hope that they resonate with others. [Source: ABC]

In disability communities and other communities, for example, it is also acknowledged that, no one person speaks for the whole of the community:

Your first lesson in how to be a better ally? Know that my experiences are not indicative of, nor am I a mouthpiece for, everybody in the disabled community.
You cannot lump us all in together. We have complex individual needs, interests, desires and goals for our own lives [...] [Source: ABC]
In an articulate piece in the wake of Prabha Kumar's horrific murder, commentator and lawyer Pallavi Sinha said the Indian community was "united in its shock and condemnation of her murder and dedicated to working with the government, police and community organisations to ensure that this never happens again".
It made me wonder: on what basis could she say this?
India is an incredibly diverse country of myriad races, cultures, languages, castes and religions, where "communalism" - the often violent clashes between these different communities - is a scourge; and "Indianness" (like Australianness) is an idea of national identity, not necessarily a racial, religious or cultural definition.
So how can there be one united Indian community in Australia, given there isn't one in India, and there are so many different groups and organisations here too? [Source: A single voice can't convey a million views, ABC]

Though quite unfortunately, the autistic community is not the only community that Ms. Thunberg has implicitly claimed to speak on behalf of — she, in fact, has heralded that she speaks for young people and on "behalf of future generations"!

My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 16 years old. I come from Sweden. And I speak on behalf of future generations. [Source: Ms. Thunberg's speech to UK Parliament, The Guardian]

It is not uncommon though, for individuals to have this audacity, as a writer commented about former U.S. President Barack Obama.

It’s because I saw the attempted coup as the worst-case-scenario conclusion of 12 years of steadily mounting fury over a Black president who had the audacity to see himself as a symbol for all Americans. [Source: New York Times]

Much later on, Ms. Thunberg issued a statement on Instagram, which included a section from an interview with the New York Times magazine, to clarify that she doesn't always think in black and white:

Do you feel you have clarity about political or moral issues beyond the climate crisis? Are there any in which you see gray? There’s a misconception that I see the world in black and white. Of course I don’t see the world in black and white. It’s just that when it comes to the climate and environment, you can’t be a little bit sustainable. Either you are sustainable or you are unsustainable. Why I was able to act upon the crisis without people around me doing it was because most people follow social codes, but people with Asperger’s and autism, we don’t follow social codes. We don’t care what people think about us. That’s why I started to act, and I strongly believe it’s why people on the autism spectrum are overrepresented in the climate movement. [Source: New York Times Magazine]

Non-autistic people are also capable of resisting peer pressure. It's a bit like a reversal of the binary narrative that "women are more empathetic than men", when there clearly are men who are capable of empathy, and there are women who can be less empathetic in certain situations, for example.

Her repeated denigration of the "social codes" is not necessarily an attitude that is reflected across the autistic population, by the way. Yes, some autistic people may have trouble in some social contexts, but it doesn't mean that all autistic people look down on it or that all autistic people don't care to follow them. Some autistic people may be more highly motivated to engage in those contexts.

Females on the autism spectrum are more socially motivated to engage with peers leading to a missed diagnosis. [Source: Aspect Australia]

Also her assessment of people on the autism spectrum being overrepresented in the climate movement is, perhaps, worth taking as just anecdotal at this point. Sure, there may be other autistic climate activists — for example, Isabelle Axelsson is another climate activist who is publicly autistic. But I hesitate to draw conclusions without officially sampling numbers, and hesitate to draw links without enough reasonably supporting evidence, as I will try to demonstrate.

There also appears to be an overrepresentation of female climate activists, from the small sample of accounts and photos that I have seen.

Climate activists Vanessa Nakate, Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille, from left, in Davos. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

But as I don't have access to numbers myself, I can't say for sure. And as for the reason for the overrepresentation of females in the climate movement, perhaps there are other factors at play in that case:

Women are much more likely to make lifestyle changes to benefit the earth, triple j survey finds
[...] Four in five of listeners have changed things in their life in the last 12 months to benefit the environment. When broken down though, that's around 89 per cent of young women and only 65 per cent of young men.
[...] James Cook University's Claudia Benham said she's found similar results in studies her university has done along with the CSIRO in relation to the reef.

"[Women] tend to be a little bit more concerned and tend to value the environment for its intrinsic value and feel that the impacts on the environment are more likely to affect them personally. So they're motivated to take action to improve the health of the environment," she said.

"Women and men interact with the environment in different ways and what we know is that women, particularly in the developing world, are more susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
"But also, even in the developed world, women tend to be more responsible for household activities that have an impact on the environment." [Source: ABC]
The eco gender gap: why is saving the planet seen as women’s work? From soap to reusable cutlery, green products are overwhelmingly marketed to and bought by women. Does this discourage men from taking responsibility?
[...] There is an obvious (and depressing) reason for this: women are not only more powerful consumers, but also disproportionately responsible, still, for the domestic sphere. The result of this is what the market research firm Mintel has termed an “eco gender gap”, where green branding might as well be pink.
In a 2018 report by Mintel on the subject, Jack Duckett, a senior consumer lifestyles analyst, said women “still tend to take charge of the running of the household”, with laundry, cleaning and recycling falling under that banner. But “with eco-friendly campaigns and product claims largely aimed at female audiences”, advertisers run the risk of communicating the message that sustainability is women’s work.
The idea is already insidious due to the persistent portrayal of women as caregivers – even of the planet. [Source: The Guardian]


Even so, the point of this is not, at all, meant to be taken as an opportunity to champion being female as "a superpower". It can be an opportunity to reflect and examine how to further engage people of different demographics.

When Ms. Thunberg believes that the alleged overrepresentation of autistic climate activists is due to them supposedly mostly not caring about what other people think about them, this theory doesn't rule out, or quantify the degree to which her being a founder has influenced other activists who share her demographics to be more comfortable to join, and not because of something inherent about that particular demographic.

This also refers to her theories about young people joining (the stake in the future may have something to do with it, but maybe it's less about "the adults are behaving like children" or "being young is a great advantage", and more like "oh look, someone like me is striking") and the other female activists joining and becoming prominent. But she has also projected this notion onto being young.

Also, being young is a great advantage since we see the world from a new perspective and we are not afraid to make radical changes. [Source: The Guardian]
“Because we are so young, our perspective on the world, our perception of the world is so—is so, like, blank. We don’t have that much experience. We don’t say, 'Oh, we cannot change this because it’s always been this way,' which a lot of old people say. We definitely need that new perspective to see the world.” [Source: The Atlantic]

Like I said, she is not any more unique than other activists, regardless of age, in the act of going on climate strike. There are adults who want change too and have joined the strikes. (I am a young person and I don't agree with her stoking divisions in this area too.)

Not everyone is on board with the "autistic superpower" theme:

There are two mainstream narratives surrounding autism: that it is either a blessing or a curse. Either you are gifted with savant-like traits (think Rain Man) and excel in areas such as mathematics, or your autism is the reason you are isolated, alone and miserable. When Greta Thunberg called out ableist bullying and challenged assumptions, even she resorted to the “superpower” stereotype. And in the case of media coverage, these two extremes in expectations are sometimes quite literally presented as a dichotomy, with Forbes running headlines such as “Is Greta Thunberg ‘disabled’ or a superhero?” What if it is neither? Or both? [Source: The Guardian]

Ms. Thunberg has also shown an aversion to describing autism as a disability:

Almost everywhere there are very limited resources to give autistic people the necessary support. Without these adjustments autism can turn into a disability. But under the right circumstances it can truly be a gift and turn into something you - and society - can benefit from. [...] [Source: Twitter]

In Australia, people on the autism spectrum can be eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, depending on some factors. Either way, autistic people are able to use this to fund things that are important to them, like membership for community programs that are designed for autistic people, such as the I CAN NETWORK or The Lab, for example.

Also, in general, some people can freely identify as a disabled person, or as a person with a disability — it is generally considered best to ask the individual what they prefer to be identifed as.

But because Ms. Thunberg is operating with a lot of dogma about autism being a gift or "superpower" and an aversion to describing it as a disability, it can make it feel like it's bad, somehow, to talk about struggling under certain environments. The truth is, that you don't need to brand autism as a "superpower" in order to justify seeking support or counteracting criticism.

Another side effect of portraying autism unequivocally as a superpower is that it can be lead to misrepresentation in media:

Autistic people on screen very rarely engage in behaviours that are seen as more taboo – for example, stimming behaviours such as rocking or flapping – or are seen to have meltdowns, and if they do, it is seen as something to be mocked.

In Te Reo Māori, the word for autism is not "superpower"; it is Takiwātanga, meaning "in one own's space and time."  

Some autistic people have found Ms. Thunberg's narrative to helpful. There was one time when I joined a Fridays for Future orientation meeting held by a representative from the Action Network. There was a science journalist, working on a biography of Ms. Thunberg, who mentioned that he had Aspergers' and that he was an ethical vegan. He said, "we have found Greta's [story] to be helpful".

But Ms. Thunberg's frequent references to autism as a superpower can also point to a subtle belief in "autism superiority".

If you were to say to a person using a wheelchair that being able to run around in two legs was a "superpower", and that it allowed you to "see much higher", I think you would meet people who would regard it as highly offensive.

And many humans, themselves, have, for a long time, fallen into the trap of thinking that their own brains are superior to those of other animals, and it has inspired gross disdain for animal welfare.

Well it's the kind of notion that Ms. Thunberg is falling into, when she says that having a specific brain condition — a specific kind of physical description, in this case — is a superpower.

A young child’s brain is developing all the time. Every time a child does something or responds to something, connections in the brain are reinforced and become stronger. Over time, the connections that aren’t reinforced disappear – they are ‘pruned’ away as they’re not needed. This ‘pruning’ is how the brain makes room for important connections – those needed for everyday actions and responses, like walking, talking or understanding emotions. This pruning doesn’t seem to happen as much [...] in children with ASD [Source: Raising Children]

The other implicit notions of "autistic superiority" that Ms. Thunberg has appeared to invoke includes accusing people, in general, particularly the non-autistic population, of:

  • focusing too much on emotions — she made this accusation of people and the press focusing too much emotions, for example, on the "how dare you" phrase of a speech she made, even though she iterated that phrase four times
Since then, I’ve given many speeches and learned that when you talk in public, you start with something personal or emotional to get everyone’s attention. Say things like, ‘our house is on fire', 'I want you to panic' or 'how dare you’.
“But today I will not do that because then those phrases are all that people focus on. They don’t remember the facts, the very reason why I say those things in the first place. [Source: Express]

And she levels similar accusations at the media:

People want something simple and concrete, and they want me to be naïve, angry, childish and emotional. That is the story that sells and creates the most clicks. Source: [Sverige Radio, starting at 42:15]
  • accusing people of a "collective mental short circuit"
Just the thought of us being in a crisis that we cannot buy, build or invest our way out of seems to create some kind of collective mental short circuit. [Source: Time]
  • as well as describing autistic people as "normal" and the others "pretty strange" or "a bit strange".

Some might argue that autistic people can have a different understanding of what may be effective in campaigning with non-autistic people.

No two autistic people are alike. But let me bring you to back to campaigner Ms. Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year, who is also autistic, and does not advocate for purely rousing up unrelenting anger — she suggests channeling it into constructive action.

Ms Tame said she understood people's anger, but hope and action were the next steps forward.
"Anger is an important emotion, and it's a very powerful emotion, the important thing is though to channel it into positive outcomes," she said.
"That rage has the potential to be converted into something constructive and powerful." [Source: ABC]

I think perhaps Ms. Thunberg is getting carried away with her "autism is a superpower" message. She appears too eager for cynicism of non-autistic people — accusing them of excessive focus on emotive reactions to her and her speeches rather than focusing on the climate crisis, without reflecting on the role of her own media participation and her own speech material, in which she deliberately seeks to stir up those emotions.

I don't want to see autism being used as a cover-all excuse for a lack of nuance. If Ms. Thunberg values being uncompromising and over-simplistic, to the point where she doesn't value nuance and operates with a lot of dogma, then she can do that if she wants to. But what bothers me is that she makes this an asset that apparently is intrinsic to autistic people, and that she pushes for it to be championed.

Ms. Thunberg's narrative of autistic superiority, unfortunately, appears to be little more than a response of overcompensation for experiences that were targeted to her. She did experience bullying.

The fact is, it appears to be very much "inspirational material" but for autistic people, to talk about how she was depressed and now she is doing things that are making her happy, and to somehow attribute this arc to autism.

Her message is little more than a "feel-good story" about autism, that can actually make it harder to talk about the nuanced facets of being autistic, and harder to talk about making sure that autistic people feel supported, independent, empowered, and have agency in their lives.

At the heart of Ms. Thunberg's message about autism is also something that is not really about autism — it is to champion being uncompromising.

A reporter at the New York Times magazine puts this question to Ms. Thunberg:

This summer you co-wrote an open letter calling for an immediate halt to all investment in fossil fuel exploration and extraction. That’s not going to happen. But is the hope that uncompromising demands are the best path to the greatest positive change? Yeah. A good example is that if you have someone in your family who is always late, you say, “The party starts at 6,” and then that person comes at 7. But in reality the party started at 7. It’s all about communicating the crisis mode: If we are to stay in line with the carbon budgets which give us a 66 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees of global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, then here is what we have to do. The people in power say: “We’re going to stay in with the Paris Agreement. We’re going to stabilize below 1.5 degrees.” They say that and get away with it because the level of knowledge is so low. [Source: New York Times Magazine]

Real life doesn't necessarily always work out like this. Not everyone who is uncompromising in their messaging gets outcomes that are favourable to them, all the time, and not everyone who is compromising gets outcomes that are favourable to them, all the time.

I think being uncompromising can also backfire in this case, where people end up thinking that to aim for keeping within the IPCC carbon budget for a 66% chance of staying within 1.5 ºC, of global mean surface temperature increase, becomes too impossible, and they stop listening to Ms. Thunberg.

And not only do they end up ignoring the activist's message to aim for the 66% chance of 1.5 ºC carbon budget, they also don't take action for the 50% chance of 1.5 ºC carbon budget (currently linear reduction to net-zero emissions by 2035 in Australia), and may end up going for keeping within the carbon budget for a 66% chance of staying within 2 ºC of warming (linear reduction to net-zero emissions by 2045 in Australia).

It might be more productive to aim for the 50% chance of 1.5ºC carbon budget, if the risk of being uncompromising is that people, who don't already agree with you, start tuning out of your message, for the 66% chance of 1.5ºC budget, as well as your other messages altogether because they are so uncompromising, and they end up aiming for the budget of 2 degrees instead.

Also the game is not necessarily about "win or lose" at 1.5 degrees C.

Mann says he is concerned focusing on absolute targets like 1.5C or 2C can divert from the bigger job. He offers the analogy of trying to get off a highway. If the world missed the 1.5C “exit ramp” that doesn’t mean it should not aim for the ramp at 1.6C. “And if we miss that, the 1.7C exit ramp,” he says.” Every tonne of carbon we don’t burn makes things better, reduces the harm and the risk.”
Peters offers a different analogy, one perhaps better suited to a sports-obsessed Australia. “Climate is not like a footy match where you lose and it is game over,” he says. “The climate game continues, so even if the 1.5C game is lost, it is still game-on for 1.6C and 1.7C. The critical point with the ‘virtually impossible’ framing is that it is clearly explained that there is still a lot worth fighting for.”
On this, Hughes says, everyone agrees. “The new mantra is that every fraction of a degree, every year and every choice matters.” [Source: The Guardian]

It is also possible to be uncompromising about your values, while also being very disciplined in your delivery. And it is possible to do this, without having to rely on berating others for being over-compromising just to draw attention to your cause. It is possible to invite others to draw the same conclusions and arrive at the same position that you have.

The Paris Agreement itself is not perfect, but it was born of a long period of negotiations, working through sticking points and trying to iron them out.

The 50,000 people who attended the summit had been waiting for this moment, through marathon negotiating sessions and sleepless nights. The contrast with the last global attempt to resolve climate change, at Copenhagen in 2009, which collapsed into chaos and recriminations, could not have been greater. [Source: The Guardian]
But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century. [Source: The Conversation]

There are many other factors at play, and for Ms. Thunberg to attribute the movement's successes purely to autism and youthfulness, is not only potentially misleading to other activists and to other autistic people, it also does a disservice to her environmental cause, by obscuring the option to properly understand how to engage people by using a wider variety of tactics, in addition to the ones that she trumpets.

The sadder narrative with autism is the eagerness to divide up a spectrum into a fixed number of categories — consider the notions of level 1, level 2 and level 3 autism spectrum disorder. Do the boundaris between these levels actually exist, or are they arbitrary constructs? Certainly they are useful for determining support and funding.

Scientifically, race is rubbish: yet, it matters. It matters because as a society we have made it matter.— Stan Grant, ABC article

The Unicode Consortium has apparently decided to boil skin colour down into five emoji tones, and the world of psychiatrists and psychologists has apparently decided to boil down degrees of memory retention into four categories.