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. Part 2 in a series on Fridays for Future's founder's personality politics & provocation.

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” [sic], 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]
She credits her single-minded focus on climate action to what she calls her superpower: Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological difference on the autism spectrum. [Source: New York Times]

The branding as a "superpower" 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 it is not an exclusive factor — that you do not have to be autistic to do this, or to take inspiration from Parkland school students (who were school-striking — any causal links with autism?), and you do not have to be autistic to be especially interested in climate change (consider demographic of climate scientists). You could have also been an autistic person and decided not to strike. I would be cautious about immediately drawing a causal link with autism.

Maybe it is worth considering that it may not have been just because one activist was autistic. i.e. You can own your decision to continue striking, without immediately linking it to an identity, such as being autistic, being female, being a child, being Swedish, etc. and calling any of those a "superpower".

Aside from generations of previous environmental activists, including indigenous activists, the movement Extinction Rebellion also started their activism before Ms. Thunberg did — starting in May 2018. They may have had — and still have — difficulty in appealing to a broader base, because of their style of civil disobedience, which includes some forms that have raised concerns with legal experts (because of them encouraging people to be arrested without fully informing activists of the risk). There were also rallies under the People's Climate March in New York City and around the world, such as in 2014 and 2015.

Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion starting in countries of Sweden and the United Kingdom, respectively, is also a conspicuous factor since those countries are already outliers when it comes to climate action — though both those countries fall short of what is considered to be fair contributions and no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change, they have been consistently ranked "High" in the Climate Change Performance Index (even just looking from 2017 onwards), and currently take the top two spots amongst the rest of list. Perhaps it is easier to get a global movement going by starting in countries that have already had relatively higher public support for stronger and more urgent climate action. And, when regarding general inertia amongst industrialised countries, perhaps it is easier to get started in countries whose cultures place relatively more value on the environment than those of other industrialised countries. (Consider general attitudes on nature in Nordic countries, — another three of which, Norway, Denmark and Finland, have also ranked relatively consistently "High" in the CCPI, just looking from 2018 onwards — and consider the long-time career of a figure like David Attenborough in the United Kingdom. It can involve more than general attitudes — i.e. things like financial vested interests — but maybe it is far easier to lean on an existing values base.)

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. (This is more relevant when considering protests historically.)

#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: Financial Times]

There are other factors suggested:

People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand. This Ms. Thunberg provides. [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 and sometimes perplexingly, curiously ignorant.

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, US CDC infectious diseases expert, reported by The Guardian]
"There's a saying that anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in finite environment, is either a madman or an economist.” [— Sir David Attenborough, source: World Economic Forum, on Facebook and The Guardian]
And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! [— Ms. Thunberg, source: The Guardian]
Here in Davos, just like everywhere else, everyone is talking about money. It seems that money and growth are our only main concerns. [— Ms. Thunberg at WEF2019, source: Fridays for Future, archive.org]
Some people - some companies and some decision makers in particular - has known exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. [— Ms. Thunberg, source: Fridays for Future, archive.org]
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]
Johan Rockström: It's March 2019, and Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer, the leader of the Fridays for Future in Germany, contact me to ask whether, after the demonstrations in Berlin on 15th March, which is the first time the Friday demonstrations have gone global, they can come to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to meet us climate scientists.

I agree of course, and the demonstrations are followed by a three-hour academic seminar where these sharp teenagers ask our scientists some really tough questions about everything from the jet stream to the sliding of the glaciers in Antarctica. I'm really heartened by this conversation. It occurs to me that it would never happen with our politicians. For example, that a head of government would call us and ask whether they could come by after an important meeting or initiative and fill up their knowledge base with the latest science.

I quickly erase this naive thought and return to the conversation, which has now dived deep down into the oceans and the heat exchange from oceans to the atmosphere between Ricarda Winkelmann, one of our most successful young researchers, and Greta.

And then two weeks later, it actually happens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls, well her personal assistant of course, and asks if Chancellor Merkel can visit the Institute to discuss, yes, climate science. She doesn't want to shoot the breeze, something serious is happening. And it started back in 2015, when 400,000 people marched through New York in the People's Climate March. It was amazing. Never before had so many people turned out in support of climate action. [Source: ABC, originally from Radio Sweden]

(It is worth noting for Professor Rockström's case, that he had also invited Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Neubauer previously in 2018.)

In 2018, when Fridays for Future held its first international demonstration in Berlin, I invited Greta to come to the Potsdam Institute to meet our scientists and have a closed-door seminar on the latest climate research. She immediately said yes and I sent an electric car to pick up her and Luisa. Since then, many in the scientific community are informally offering our knowledge to Fridays for Future. They are hungry to learn.I am in relatively frequent contact with Greta. I spoke to her this month. [...] These are clever young people. Our exchanges are very informal. I do them because I think they are so fantastic and that they can make a real difference. [— Johan Rockström, Source: The Guardian]

But back to a case of less-forgiving cynicism of politicians, by a scientist:

I mean one of the things that is not a joke exactly, in the US, is that — the simple way of characterising, these days — is the Democrats want to govern, and Republicans want power. And the major complaints by the Republicans of the Democrats are essentially, "Hey, they want to govern. They want to govern the country, and we want to harvest the country." And all these laws are so inconvenient, so they've been doing away with them right and left. They're just getting in the way of this harvesting that we feel it is our right to do.  [Alan Kay, computerist and scientist, in an interview with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Source: Youtube, edited for clarity]

(Earlier on in that interview, Dr. Kay also mentioned that Ms. Thunberg was his favourite icon in the climate movement.)

My favourite icon of this whole movement is Greta. And Greta doesn't claim to know the science, but she is smarter than almost anybody out there in the public when she says you have to really follow the science; you have to pay attention to it because it's the best thing that we've got. And so this is what people are not doing. They're instead relying on their common [sense] — like the people walking outside without masks, relying on their common sense, that maybe they don't know somebody who's died from [COVID-19], and so it's somebody else's problem, and so forth.
So this doesn't work, because if you look at the nine billion people that we're going to have on the planet by the end of the century, and think about the amount of just random waste and pollution of every kind — including some of the countries that are trying to industrialise now, like India, primarily through coal — basically they aren't going to stop exploiting coal until somebody invents something and offers to replace it. Right now they view their priorities as being very close-in — they have more than a billion people to worry about, before you start worrying about the whole planet going to hell. [Source: YouTube, edited for clarity]

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 or not listened to, bases that are disengaged with standard political operations, bases that have fragmented across the "educated" and "uneducated" lines in Western society.

The most profound socio-demographic driver of belief in the climate emergency and climate action is a person’s educational background. There were consistently very high levels of demand for climate action among people with post-secondary education in all countries, ranging from LDCs, such as Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (both 82%), to wealthy countries like France (87%) and Japan (82%). Source: [UN People's Climate Vote]

Ms. Thunberg exemplifies her base growing tired of listening, saying that "there are no arguments left":

Ms. Thunberg believes people should act, not argue. That, perhaps, is why she is planning to travel to next month’s United Nations global warming summit in New York by sailboat, not airplane. It is not that Ms. Thunberg does not care about climate data; indeed, she cites the annual reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as if they were gospel. It is just that she is done debating. [Source: New York Times]
Oliver Whang: How do you plan on sustaining this movement? Are there specific things we need to do that are different from what needed to be done two years ago or one year ago or eight months ago?

Greta Thunberg: I mean, it's very complex. But right now we have kind of hit the wall. There are no arguments left. There are no excuses left. Now, it's just, either you try to minimize the crisis or just completely deny it, or you try to distract. [Source: National Geographic]

The exhaustion with listening and debating is reminiscent, to me, of the rise of other certain outsiders to the political establishment — the 45th president of the United States being one. Their rises can appear more related than one might expect, when you factor in the split along class, education and socio-economic divides that is widening within Western societies.

Trump was right when he said: "This country was seriously divided before I got here." [Source: Stan Grant, on ABC]
The West has been battered by war, growing inequality, stagnant wages, terrorism, economic collapse, declining democracy and rising political populism. [Source: Stan Grant, on ABC]

I think that, in fields of science and academia, we can forget that people studying these domains can be quite elitist in their remarks and attitudes. We ignore how this feels for people outside the bubble, and are subsequently surprised when there are people who don't respect science or academia, and who are wary of experts, after years of schooling during which they were told that they might have not been "good enough" to do science, mathematics, literature. Then we continue to vilify them, as in the case of prevailing partisan perceptions of climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, economists, businesspeople etc.

We talk about ourselves being above money, above finanical interests, and ignore how this feels for people who have been working hard to secure basic financial security for their families. Then we are surprised when they support someone who echoes their values. We ourselves can feel unheard by a majority, who seem indifferent to, or even distrustful of, science or journalism. Thus when someone comes along and echoes our thoughts, we do the exact same thing as the people that we have "othered", and rally behind that figure,

And what is the point of learning facts in the school system, when the most important facts, given by the finest science of that same school system, clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society? [—Ms. Thunberg, source: TED]

and continue to, largely, ignore the echo chambers that we occupy.

Like Hanson, former US president Donald Trump and others of their ilk, Jordies’ brand is of the outsider who “tells it like it is”, who has the cojones to reveal truths that the mainstream media can’t, or won’t. [Source: Crikey]
Friendlyjordies’ fans are typically young, alienated by traditional media and for politicians hard to reach. [Source: Media Watch]
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, did not come to play by the old rules of Washington. […] Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as a symbol of a Democratic party that is younger, more diverse and increasingly wary of the excesses of capitalism. She believes voters are tired of pragmatism and consensus-building. Her campaign resonated, she argues, because of her uncompromising clarity of vision. It’s a contested theory of change that she shares with the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whom she endorsed in October. [Source: The Guardian]
Trump’s rallies thrived in 2016 as presenting an insurgent campaign against the status quo. He has not yet committed to run in 2024, but once again he is the Washington outsider, striking a chord in restive crowds with invective against a Democratic president. [Source: The Guardian]
Mr. Trump won the presidency by portraying himself as a political outsider with the business acumen to shake up Washington. [Source: New York Times]

Ms. Thunberg is also of that brand.

"You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children." [Ms. Thunberg at COP24, source: CNN]
"And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us." [Ms. Thunberg at UN General Assembly, source: The Guardian]
Or maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is. Because even that burden you leave to us children. [Ms. Thunberg at L'Assemblée Nationale, source: Fridays for Future website on archive.org]

Despite what she claims and suggests about autism being a superpower for this:

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]
Even more astonishing is the nature of the figure at the centre of these events, for Thunberg is adamant that her condition […] has played a critical role in helping her get her message across in a clear and simple manner. [Source: The Guardian]

while the part about making "clear and simple" messages may be a preference of how some autistic people usually 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 mean that being autistic is the sole reason that she speaks the way she does.

That she chooses to speak her mind the way she does, does not mean she does it only because she is autistic. She speaks that way because this is how Ms. Thunberg talks and acts, and that is part of her character and her worldview, not to be automatically extended to all autistic people. Autistic people are not a uniform or homogenous group, like the rest of the population is not; we each have our own personalities, perspectives and values.

For example, it was mentioned that I can often use circumstantial speech, in my own assessment. My provisional psychologist told me that this is also common in autistic individuals.

Also you certainly don't have to be autistic to speak brazenly or in a forthcoming manner like that, as indicated with former U.S. president Donald Trump, friendlyjordies's Jordan Shanks, One Nation's Pauline Hanson, the U.S. Democrat's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It can depend on the values of the individual, which I suspect applies in the case of Ms. Thunberg, who has said that Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes was her favourite story growing up, in the first episode of BBC's "Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World" [from 05:45], saying that she sees it as "we climate activists are that child saying that the emperor is naked" (which certainly shows itself in her tendency to view her actions with righteous certainty) and "that story is really the story of ourselves, our society, of how the world looks now".

She certainly shows her preference for that story and narrative, urging people to "call out" the naked emperors

Thunberg knows she will be disappointed. “The things that they are going to present will not be nearly enough for what science is saying will be in line with the Paris Agreement,” she said. “So I’ll just be calling that out, I guess.” [Source: New Yorker]

and uttering that "every single one" of them is naked. This narrative is also reinforced to her by her mother subscribing to it:

She was the child, we were the emperor. And we were all naked. [Source: The Guardian]

Me, I personally like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, and I have also read Wind, Sand and Stars. I think there's a fairly exaggerated and deliberate, almost comically unrealistic element in Andersen's story. But Ms. Thunberg seems to find it realistic enough to adopt it as part of her personal brand. So yeah, avoid attributing this brand to all autistic people, or as something inherently part of autism.

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

There are other factors explored elsewhere, in relation to the rise of the movement:

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, Ms. Thunberg's 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.” [Source: The Guardian]
“But without my diagnosis, I would never have started school striking. Because then I would have been like everyone else.” [Source: New York Times]

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 personally 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. [Source: 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 on the days after, 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]

(A side note that the term, high-functioning, is not used in the diagnostic process.)

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.

Unfortunately, sometimes the girl who has Asperger's syndrome is vulnerable to friendship predators who take advantage of her naivety, social immaturity and longing to have a friend. […]
Social immaturity and naivety can also lead to vulnerability to sexual predators and a risk of sexual assault. [Source: Professor Tony Attwood]

Ms. Thunberg herself has also been vulnerable to others' misleading, as described in a family memoir, with "being […] lured into strange places":

Stories about [Greta Thunberg] being pushed over in the playground, wrestled to the ground, or lured into strange places, the systematic shunning and the safe space in the girls’ toilets where she sometimes manages to hide and cry before the break monitors force her out into the playground again. [—Malena Ernman, source: The Guardian]

And I'm not sure that it does it justice for her, or that it helps others either, to say, "I don't easily fall for lies" and "I see through things". Otherwise, it provides this glossy, unrealistic picture of autism as an invincibility, and submerges the struggles that autistic people can continue to face. Liane Holliday Willey touches on this in a book (with a foreword by Professor Attwood):

When I unveiled my differences for loud and for real, I could start to work through years of bad memories, discomfort, abuse, confusion, depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. [Source: Safety Skills for Asperger Women]

In a film called I Am Greta, Ms. Thunberg trumpets the speeches that she has made and the questions that she asks, also 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]

(Just a preliminary the next part about another interview on the film, it is worth noting that Ms. Thunberg claimed that 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] )

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

“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.

By the way, I would challenge the claim of staying "laser-focused".

It is a bit like making the statement, "non-autistic people have a superpower because their traits allow them to make friends more easily". Firstly, I would find it quite sneering of the struggles that autistic people, and non-autistic people, can face socially, and, secondly, making friends is not exclusive to non-autistic people.

With the narrative around autism, there may be certain traits that are more characteristic of autistic people, but this does not mean that they are exclusive advantages for autistic people, and it does not mean that they are exclusive reasons for a success.

Ms. Thunberg 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, emphasis mine),

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.” [Source: The Guardian]

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.)

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. [Source: New York Times magazine]

As well as in the film, at two public speeches, including a TED 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 others having deficits is not uncommon — for example, Alexander Graham Bell saw deafness as a deficit and, through this, in his case, 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 that article, you will find no reference to autism being described as a superpower. We deserve to be treated with respect and our needs addressed, as any other human being deserves. Not because of some nonsense about it being a superpower.

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]

And she also sees herself as speaking for the biosphere:

"The older generations are failing us. They are failing future generations, but future generations do not have a voice and the biosphere does not have a voice," she said. "So, we will be the voice that speaks up for them." [Source: NBC Los Angeles and 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]

Though other activists have been more disciplined about this, such as activist Xiye Bastida at the 2021 Leaders' Summit on Climate:

I am one of the many young people who have already been impacted by the climate crisis. [...] My hometown was hit by flooding in 2015. I come to this summit knowing that I cannot possibly communicate all the youth voices that should be here, as I am the only one of two who will be addressing you today. As much as it is a great opportunity, it is also a great responsibility. [Source: 2021 Leaders' Summit on Climate / Youtube]

I think, more broadly, it comes from a place of incredible self-righteousness, for one to assume that they speak for a whole demographic.

The writer Toure challenged the whole idea of "blackness" in his book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?

He said "the point of fighting for freedom is for black folk to define blackness as we see fit".

As he made clear, there are forty million blacks in America and forty million ways to be black. [Source: Stan Grant, on ABC]

Referring back to the TED Talk, 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, and part of Instagram, published October 30 2020]

Though, of course, the one who is responsible for spreading the misconception that she sees things in black and white is none other than herself:

For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. [Ms Thunberg, Source: TED, November 2018]
I have Aspergers syndrome so, for me, most things are black or white. [Source: The Guardian, November 27 2018]
She has previously said that Asperger’s is “a gift” — why is that?
“If I would have been normal like everyone else, I could just continue like everyone else,” she begins. “And get stuck in the social game, and just continue like before. But since I was different, I see the world from a different perspective, I see things very black and white.” [Source: Financial Times, February 22 2019]
“I see the world kind of black-and-white,” she says. “Everyone says that there is no black-and-white issue, but I think this is. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.” [Source: Rolling Stone, March 5 2019]
We have to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. And either we do that or we don't. You say nothing in life is black or white but that is a lie, a very dangerous lie. Either we prevent a 1.5 degree of warming or we don't. […] That is as black or white as it gets. [Ms. Thunberg at WEF 2019, source: Fridays for Future, archive.org]
“I don’t actually see the world in black and white,” says Thunberg in the film. “It’s just the climate issue I see in black and white.” [Source: Time, film published November 13 2020]

Bwahahahaha.

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]

There is a television show called "Love on the Spectrum" in Australia, featuring autistic individuals seeking romantic relationships, (which also counters the idea that autistic people don't want connections, in its description).

Just like neurotypical people, those on the spectrum [can] have the same desire for intimacy and companionship as the rest of the population [Source: Media Spy]

and this is also mentioned by Professor Attwood on the website of the Minds and Hearts clinic:

I am often asked by teenagers and young adults with Asperger’s syndrome, ‘How do I get a girlfriend/boyfriend?’ This is not an easy question to answer. [Source: Minds and Hearts clinic]

Nor do you have to be autistic to disregard how others think of you. It's more of a question of how wise you think it is to ignore others' perspectives, in general, and how much you think it is needed for your current work. I would argue that people's public attitudes are quite worth gauging for when you're doing campaigning work, because you're trying to influence public attitudes, and having a strong understanding helps to ground conversations. And it depends on your values — do you value being open-minded and understanding what other people perceive about you're putting out? This casual dismissal can also downplay the real struggle that people can continue to face with vicious, negative attention, including when it becomes physical for other activists, regardless of how Ms. Thunberg personally has come to brush it off or laugh it off (but this is after a long time of struggling with others' perceptions herself) and regardless of how her family has the resources to shift between accomodation.

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 causal 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 "being young is a great advantage", and more like, "oh look, someone like me is striking", or even identity politics — from Ms. Thunberg evoking things such as "the adults are behaving like children"), as well as the other female activists joining and becoming prominent. But she has also projected this notion of a special, innate strength 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.)

Despite digging into the myth that being autistic somehow makes her automatically disciplined, she isn't even disciplined about her use of evoking being a child either:

When you say “us children” — Technically and legally I am a child. You are, but I bet there are lots of 17-year-olds who don’t want to be thought of as children even if technically and legally they are. Are there ever times when you’d rather be thought of as an adult? I don’t care about whether I’m considered as a child or an adult. I want to be met with the response that’s on my level. But yeah, I guess when I turn 18, I’m going to switch to describing myself as an adult. That’s a very autistic way of seeing things. People say: “She’s trying to frame herself as a child so that people can’t criticize her. She’s using that as a shield.” No. I’m autistic, and I say things in the way they are. [Source: New York Times]

She claims, "when I turn 18, I'm going to switch to describing myself as an adult. That's a very autistic way of seeing things."

A few months later:

Greta Thunberg turned 18 a few months ago but occasionally she forgets that [...] the words “we children” still sometimes slip into her sentences, out of habit. [Source: Financial Times]

Lol.

For context:

Greta Thunberg turned 18 a few months ago but occasionally she forgets that. “I actually can vote now,” she grins. But the words “we children” still sometimes slip into her sentences, out of habit. She is sanguine about the change, but it is a bigger shift than she lets on: that phrase has been a core part of her message.
Thunberg became the world’s most celebrated climate activist on the back of this idea: that children have to wake the world up to the reality of climate change. [Source: Financial Times]

On a similar vein, Ms. Thunberg has expressed to politicians that she does not like her action being trivialised into something to be admired:

We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do. [Source: The Guardian]
I urge them to listen to the science and act now before it’s too late. They say that they think it’s so amazing that I’m so active and committed, and that when I grow up I too can become a politician and make a real difference in the world. I then explain that when I’ve grown up and finished my education it will be too late to act if we are to stay below the 1.5°C – or even 2°C – target. [Source: Time]

(Of course, this stems from certain politicians' disconnect.)

And yet she also calls others' actions "very admirable":

Unfortunately, the climate crisis is a very unfair crisis. People who have done the least harm are the ones who will be hit first and hardest. Most often, it is Indigenous peoples who are. They are also the ones leading the fight against it, which is very admirable. [Source: Elle]
"[Sir David Attenborough] has really started to speak up more than he did before and I think that's really admirable and that's something that we should all strive to be like." [Source: BBC]

(I hope at this point, that we have thrown out the idea that being autistic means that you are innately incapable of hypocrisy and that you automatically ignore or are immune to social rules.)

In this regard, her family see her Asperger’s as a blessing. She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues. [Source: The Guardian]

I should include that Professor Attwood has endorsed Ms. Thunberg as "a heroine of autism" and an example that people with autism can be "revealers of truth" in a YouTube segment. He said that having a strong sense of social justice can give the person's message "a degree of energy, commitment, and passion", and that a special interest can often lead to knowledge and insight, and that Ms. Thunberg "will do a lot for autism". (He also suggested that autism is the next step for evolution.)

I do not dispute that autistic people may commonly have special interests or a strong sense of social justice, but I disagree that these are to be portrayed unequivocally as exclusive superpowers, or that they have no vulnerabilities. There are people who are dedicated to their fields and are not autistic. There are risks with righteous certainty. There are risks with having individuals as symbols of entire demographics, as I mentioned earlier. There are risks with suggesting autism is a form of superiority, as I will delve into later. (In that segment, he did not speak to the other narratives around autism that Ms. Thunberg has brought up in various other interviews, and was responding initially to attacks by some on Fox News.

Another autistic person put it in this context:

As a fellow autist, I find myself stuck in the middle of these two incompatible views: on the one hand, autistic people are disturbed, naïve individuals who are incapable of knowing their own minds or speaking credibly; on the other, autistic people are superhumans with a preternatural ability to see the truth of things and to articulate it without equivocation. The world would be better without us; the world would be lost without us. [Joanne Limburg, source: The Guardian]

Some have lapped up the "superpower" notion, but not everyone is on board with the "autistic superpower" theme:

Then there are the commentators who love Thunberg—and portray her as something beyond human. At Vox, David Roberts claimed that autism confers the power to be “indifferent, often blind, to social cues and incentives,” “a kind of superpower.” Liza Featherstone at Jacobin reckons that autism makes Thunberg “uniquely suited” to leading a worldwide movement. The frontman of ABBA has also said that Greta Thunberg has a “superpower,” perhaps a garbled reference to a tweet in which Thunberg, or someone closer to her, wrote that “given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower.” On Twitter, she is “superhuman.”

I am also autistic. At first, this kind of praise was heartwarming. My autism presents in similar ways to Thunberg’s. Many of the things people laud about her—her tenacity, that she marches to the beat of her own drum, her seriousness—are things I and many of my autistic peers have been mocked for.

But the praise is not without harm. The idea that these qualities point to something deeper, something mystic, is far from new: It often takes on the form of the “disability superpower,” a classic cliché of “blind seers” and the like that goes back to Greek mythology and beyond. The most spectacularly silly recent example that comes to mind is in The Predator, the 2018 take on the dreadlocked aliens in which an autistic kid is being hunted by the predators because Asperger’s is “the next step in human evolution.” You don’t have to look far for more instances—they’re everywhere.
To do this to Thunberg, though, feels especially misguided. Pathologizing her skills is soft scorn. Attributing her talent to autism is a remarkably illiberal way of looking at leadership—that some people are simply better than others because of inborn traits. [Source: Slate]

(Side note: I disagree with the author's contention, in the Slate opinion piece, that Ms. Thunberg's campaigning approach is most effective and that Ms. Thunberg has played no part in the "superhuman" narrative. But I did want to cite what the author said about how autism has been portrayed more broadly in that case.)

Here is another take, this time on The Guardian:

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 shown an aversion to describing autism as a disability (which some in autistic communities might also prefer not to do) but again she speaks almost generally about autism, rather than acknowledging differing perspectives across communities:

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: Ms. Thunberg, on Twitter]

To include more information, in Australia, for example, 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. (It is the number one condition in the NDIS, as of 2020.)

Also, in general, some people can freely identify as a disabled person, or as a person with a disability, or they may not— it is generally considered best to ask individuals.

But because Ms. Thunberg is operating with a lot of dogma about autism being a gift or "superpower", it can additionally 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.

I feel like portraying it as a "cognitive superpower" does not help well with talking about struggles with communication.

Another side effect of portraying autism unequivocally as a superpower is that it can be lead to more 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. [Source: The Guardian]

I would like to share this: in Te Reo Māori, the word for autism is not "superpower"; it is Takiwātanga, meaning "in one own's space and time."

A time and space for Takiwātanga - Altogether Autism
Māori word for autism is ‘Takiwātanga’: “tōku/tōna anō takiwā” – “my/his/her own time and space”.

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".

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 everything from misguided understanding of other beings, to gross disdain for animal welfare.

Julia, her friends and family agreed, had style. When, out of the blue, the 18-year-old chimpanzee began inserting long, stiff blades of grass into one or both ears and then went about her day with her new statement accessories clearly visible to the world, the other chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi wildlife sanctuary in Zambia were dazzled.

Pretty soon, they were trying it, too: first her son, then her two closest female friends, then a male friend, out to eight of the 10 chimps in the group, all of them struggling, in front of Julia the Influencer — and hidden video cameras — to get the grass-in-the-ear routine just right. “It was quite funny to see,” said Edwin van Leeuwen of the University of Antwerp, who studies animal culture. “They tried again and again without success. They shivered through their whole bodies.” [...]

Culture was once considered the patented property of human beings: We have the art, science, music and online shopping; animals have the instinct, imprinting and hard-wired responses. But that dismissive attitude toward nonhuman minds turns out to be more deeply misguided with every new finding of animal wit or whimsy: Culture, as many biologists now understand it, is much bigger than we are. [Source: NYTimes]

Well this dismissive attitude of superiority is 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 — or an innate/inherent neurological difference, is a superpower.

(There isn't a singular or definitively-known cause for autism, though there appears to be several possible links with genetic and/or brain developmental factors, but this is to illustrate that it is currently understood to be a neurological difference (hence the term neurodiversity)—)

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]

But apparently it is fine for her to call herself "very emotional":

“I’m very weak in a sense,” says Thunberg quietly. “I’m very tiny and I am very emotional, and that is not something people usually associate with strength. I think weakness, in a way, can be also needed because we don’t have to be the loudest, we don’t have to take up the most amount of space, and we don’t have to earn the most money.” [Source: Rolling Stone]
"I'm very emotional, I'm very small, and I'm very weak in a way," Thunberg said. "That's something I'm very proud of." [Source: Yahoo]
  • 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]

and accusing teenagers, generally, as being more prone to "distractions":

When one interviewer uses the word “suffer,” she gently corrects him and says that it’s something she “has,” more like a gift. It is Asperger’s, she says, that lets her stay so focused on and passionate about her work, without the distraction that other teens might face. [Source: Vox]
She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues. [Source: The Guardian]
At the end of the film, she suggests that the world might be a better place if everyone had a little bit of Asperger’s. [Source: Vox]

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, 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, an invincibility, unfortunately, appears to be little more than a response of overcompensation for experiences that were targeted to her. She did experience bullying.

“[…] And wherever I’ve been I’ve been bullied because I’m different.” [Source: The Guardian]

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 and activism.

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.

And she is definitely selling a narrative that she believes in, as she has called another part of the narrative "a very beautiful and important part of the story itself".

When she became famous, she frequently found herself in big, noisy crowds, being jostled, pushed and shouted at. These sorts of environments did become easier for her to handle over time, she says.

“That’s also a very beautiful and important part of the story itself. Before, I wasn’t able to speak to anyone. Going outside was hard. I was in a class of five people in school, because I couldn’t be around too many people and I couldn’t handle the noise.”

When she became a climate activist, everything changed.

“All that basically disappeared overnight." [Source: Radio Times]

Sometimes the narrative is exaggerated:

Her parents were the guinea pigs. She discovered she had remarkable powers of persuasion, and her mother gave up flying, which had a severe impact on her career. Her father became a vegetarian. [Source: The Guardian]

It was not necessarily all because of persuasive Ms. Thunberg was on the climate, but also because of other reasons, including her father wanting to please her:

He said Greta got "energy" from her parents' changes in behaviour to become more environmentally friendly - such as her mother choosing not to travel by aeroplane and her father becoming vegan.

Mr Thunberg has also accompanied his daughter on her sailing expeditions to UN climate summits in New York and Madrid. Greta refuses to travel by air because of its environmental impact.

"I did all these things [changing diet and travel], I knew they were the right thing to do... but I didn't do it to save the climate, I did it to save my child," Mr Thunberg said. "I have two daughters and to be honest they are all that matter to me. I just want them to be happy," he added. [Source: BBC]

At the heart of Ms. Thunberg's message about autism is also something that is not really about autism. One of those 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 reaching common ground, 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]

(Though it is worth noting this:)

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.

It was unsurprising to read this, in a summary by a reviewer, at The New Yorker, of her family's memoir (co-authored by Ms. Thunberg's family but primarily written by Malena Ernman, Ms. Thunberg's mother):

“Greta has a diagnosis, but it doesn’t rule out that she’s right and the rest of us have got it all wrong,” [Ms. Ernman] concludes. […]

A doctor warned the family of the dangers of “co-autism,” or of conforming too much to their respective diagnoses.
[…] As Malena writes, in response to the doctor’s idea that the family might become “co-autistic,” “It’s just that some days we choose to play along with the diagnosis, because sometimes the diagnosis is right and the norm is wrong.” [Source: The New Yorker]

This kind of idea of exceptionalism — believing that one is exceptional, an exception; that, for example, one is inherently right and everyone else is wrong, or, more generally, one is an exception amongst everyone else — certainly shows itself in Ms. Thunberg's narrative around autistic exceptionalism.

But then again, I’m still very different. I am not like everyone else. [— Ms. Thunberg] [Source: Radio Times]
Editorial note. Above quote chosen as a deliberate distillation, to illustrate how Ms. Thunberg fundamentally sees her autism. See the following quotes.
“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.” [Source: The Guardian]
“But without my diagnosis, I would never have started school striking. Because then I would have been like everyone else.” [Source: New York Times]
“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. [Source: The Guardian]
I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. [—Ms. Thunberg] [Source: TED]

And don't forget this — which is what stems from a belief that what you have is superior, and that people who don't have it are lacking.

At the end of the film, [Ms. Thunberg] suggests that the world might be a better place if everyone had a little bit of Asperger’s. [Source: Vox]

I mostly suspect that it will be hard to reach Ms. Thunberg and challenge her on the "superpower" narrative, or even get her to reflect on if it is dangerous — dangerous to assume that you are less prone to making certain mistakes because of something innate.

I am disappointed that, so far, a majority of journalists have taken her word and have published it verbatim, without challenging it or properly scrutinising it.

This is not something that is a unique case, as illustrated by another example that was examined on Media Watch.

'DEBUNKING DARK EMU
Two eminent academics take aim at a publishing phenomenon'
- Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June, 2021

That publishing phenomenon is Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book, Dark Emu, an award-winning bestseller that challenged theories of Indigenous Australians as hunter gatherers and painted a new picture of supposedly more advanced societies. […]

But now that theory is being challenged too, as Nine’s Good Weekend magazine put a new assessment at centre stage: […]

'In page after page, Sutton and Walshe accuse Pascoe of a “lack of true scholarship”, ignoring Aboriginal voices, dragging respect for traditional Aboriginal culture back into the Eurocentric world of the colonial era, and “trimming” colonial observations to fit his argument. They write that while Dark Emu “purports to be factual” it is “littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions”.'
- Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June, 2021

Yep, they don’t miss. Pascoe says he welcomes the difference of opinion.

But his defenders — of which there are many — have been forced to see his work in a new light.

And critics — of which there are far fewer, but vocal — have new ammunition to attack Pascoe and anyone who supports his book:

ANDREW BOLT: '… the greatest literary hoax ever perpetrated in Australia. A hoax that on Saturday blew up, was finally admitted by left-wing newspapers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that had fallen for it and promoted its author for years.'
- The Bolt Report, Sky News, 14 June, 2021

Yes, none have criticised Pascoe’s work more than Andrew Bolt. […]

On two days last week, Bolt told his Sky News audience that he was right all along:

ANDREW BOLT: '… that Bruce Pascoe can’t be believed is not news to Bolt Report viewers. For nearly two years I’ve pointed out his fakery.'
- The Bolt Report, Sky News, 14 June, 2021

He has, indeed. And he blames the ABC, chiefly, for puffing up Pascoe:

ANDREW BOLT: '… will the ABC say sorry? Because no media organisation did more than the ABC, our national broadcaster, to promote Pascoe and to attack his critics, like me, as racist.'
- The Bolt Report, Sky News, 14 June, 2021

Bolt’s ridicule of Pascoe has often involved disputing his claims to Aboriginal heritage. And some of his attacks have been personal.

But the new book — written by eminent scientists and supported by the work of other academics — backs Bolt’s verdict on Pascoe’s work.

So, were others in the media, including at the ABC, too keen to accept Pascoe’s theory?

Sutton and Walshe believe they were, writing:

'As far as we can tell, no journalist or book reviewer covering the Dark Emu story has interviewed senior Aboriginal people from remote communities where knowledge of the old economy is retained at least by some, and practised in an adapted way by many,' …
- Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June, 2021

And on an accompanying podcast, Peter Sutton offered interviewer Greg Callaghan a reason why that might be so:

GREG CALLAGHAN: 'Is there a fear that amongst people on the left that questioning Dark Emu kind of lumps them in with the Sky News crowd and the commentators on that, sort of, ideological side?'

PETER SUTTON: 'Yes, that’s, that’s true. It’s that fear, sometimes in the form of cowardice in my view, that has restrained people who know about this subject from speaking out and saying anything.'
- Good Weekend Talks podcast, “The Dark Emu debate: did the publishing phenomenon get it wrong?”, 12 June, 2021

It is an uncomfortable lesson for many journalists. [Source: ABC Media Watch]

(You can read another perspective here.)

As an aside, somewhat famously, Mr. Bolt has also made personal attacks on Ms. Thunberg that were found to have breached a standard by the Press Council in Australia. (Ms. Thunberg did respond on Twitter to the article.) I do not support personal attacks on people.

But it is certainly an uncomfortable lesson in the case of Dark Emu. Ms. Thunberg is a public campaigner, and she is not above being held to account, for her narrative about autism being a superpower.

I don't have experience with journalism but I do have questions.

  • Does the narrative serve to shift focus towards climate action, or does it detract from her cause, and sustain attention on her as an individual?
  • Does the narrative consider that non-autistic people are also capable of discipline and focus? There are plenty of vegans (even though Ms. Thunberg's mother appears to present Ms. Thunberg as exceptional in that regard — 'the hamburger on her plate is no longer food but “a ground up muscle from a living being with feelings, awareness and a soul”') and there have been many campaigners, and plenty of people who speak what they think with little regard for how they are regarded. Does Ms. Thunberg suggest, by spreading the narrative, that there is a causal link between having Asperger's and activism, in general, or climate activism? Is there conrete, rigorous evidence to support this or is it mainly anecdotal puff?
  • Does the narrative make Ms. Thunberg obscure herself from reflecting on the efficacy of her campaigning? That is, by calling autism a superpower for campaigning, does it mean that Ms. Thunberg thinks her campaigning is automatically effective, thus resulting in her blaming other people if they are not convinced by or misinterpret her messaging, and resulting in her not deeply reflecting on improving her own performance? Does Ms. Thunberg think that being autistic automatically means being so focused, "laser-focused" and "single-minded" that she assumes that it renders her incapable of straying off-topic, thus meaning that she ignores her own performance in this regard, when she does go very much off-topic on climate and talk about personal fulfilment instead?
  • Does the narrative enforce a notion of autistic superiority? Is this healthy? Ms. Thunberg has gone so far to suggest that the world would be a better place if everyone had a little bit Asperger's, and called other people "pretty strange".
  • Does the narrative make it harder to talk about what autistic people might be struggling with?
  • Does Ms. Thunberg think it's appropriate to suggest that she speaks on behalf of all autistic people, when it is not a homogenous group? She has made statements such as, "for those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white".
  • Is it healthy to have a worldview of autistic exceptionalism, where you divide someone with Asperger's as being different against "everyone else"? Isn't there common ground to be found?
  • Is she continuing to conform too much to the diagnostic criteria of autism, when these are patterns across the population and not absolutes?

Though I suspect that many journalists and other autistic advocates might share the same hesitancy, (the anthropologist Sutton expressed it in a, perhaps, less polite term — cowardice), about scrutinising Ms. Thunberg's narrative, because of the same fear about being lumped in with commentators who have launched personal attacks, in this case, on Ms. Thunberg and autism.

This has, perhaps, already happened:

I Am Greta review – slick yet shallow Thunberg documentary
[…] the film doesn’t entirely work. By its very nature, of course, it […] – namely, goes on and on about her personally, and not about the subject of climate change. […] But the resulting image is carefully curated, perhaps because Grossman is hobbled by his (understandable) reluctance to say anything remotely critical or even off-topic, and give ammunition to the Fox News bullies. [Source: The Guardian]

Ultimately, Ms. Thunberg spreading this narrative also feels like it serves her, personally, way more than it does the climate movement or other autistic individuals. But she is also not alone in that sort of behaviour:

When Joyce was pressed on what policies his leadership would look to change, he talked about his "attributes" but not the agenda he would seek to stamp on the government. [Source: ABC]

Ms. Thunberg's approach is similar in this instance, but it is to be deliberately almost devoid of active substance (it is mostly morals and very few references to actual science),

People are like, ‘Has your movement failed since you have not accomplished your goals?’ But, I mean, what are our goals? We don't have any goals. Our goal is to do as much as we possibly can to be a small part of a very big shift. To be one of countless of activists who push in the same direction from different perspectives. And that is our goal. [Source: National Geographic]
Washington Post: For you on this trip, how do you think of what success looks like? What are you hoping to accomplish, and what concrete actions do you want to see leaders take?

Thunberg: I don’t really have any concrete things I want to have accomplished, because then I would just be disappointed all the time. But I’m just trying to make as much difference as I can […] [Source: Washington Post]
Unlike other young climate activists—such as members of the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which is led by college students and early 20-somethings—she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.” [Source: The Atlantic]
A note on the general demand of "listen to the science".

"Listen to the science" turns out to be quite hollow, for the movement, as a whole if you are not one of a very few core leaders, and not part of Fridays for Future Germany.

Just specifically pg 108 of the IPCC Special Report 1.5 and a study on UK and Sweden fair share of emissions reductions are mentioned occasionally in Ms. Thunberg's speeches.

and she champions, an awful lot, her own attributes as a supposed superpower.

“Being different is a gift,” she told Nick Robinson when interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. [Source: The Guardian]
I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And - given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower. [Source: Twitter]

And Ms. Thunberg's current consistent self-parading is not limited to just selecting autistic traits to present as personality strengths:

"I'm very emotional, I'm very small, and I'm very weak in a way," Thunberg said. "That's something I'm very proud of." [Source: Yahoo]
“I’m very weak in a sense,” says Thunberg quietly. “I’m very tiny and I am very emotional, and that is not something people usually associate with strength. I think weakness, in a way, can be also needed because we don’t have to be the loudest, we don’t have to take up the most amount of space, and we don’t have to earn the most money.” [Source: Rolling Stone]

Apparently she will choose any arbitrary differences that are characteristic of herself.

(Yes, as much as Thunberg supporters — some even call themselves fans — believe her lip service about humility,

Thunberg herself should not be blamed for the way in which she has been built up into something bigger than any person can be. [Julian Baggini, source: The Guardian]

I have examined her performance and I think she shares some responsibility. I believe that self-parading is a more appropriate descriptor.)

Ms. Thunberg's championing of particular personality attributes becomes particularly evident when considering the emergence of a personality cult around the movement, even called as such internally.

It is unfortunate and disappointing that people have lapped up the narrative, rather than actually thoroughly examining her performance or thinking the narrative through.

So I will share something from deep-fake Donald Trump at the Walkley Awards for journalism (voiced by Rupert Degas, created by advertising agency BMF):

We need great journalists who question the source, question the agenda, question those whom no-one else is questioning. And, most importantly, question their own bias. Because the more you want something to be true, the more you should question it.

Reflection on autism in general

The sadder narrative with the current view of 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 boundaries 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 (also forgetting that people's skin colours, including mine, can change tone depending on things like amount of sunlight), and the world of psychiatrists and psychologists has apparently decided to boil down degrees of memory retention into four categories (non-autistic, and level 1,2,3).

Of course, this categorisation is not at all unusual. You can see it in naming the oceans. When does a drop of water become the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean?

Meh.

This aspect of a continuum is partially acknowledged with more severe autism and what was formerly referred to as Asperger's Syndrome:

In my original book on Asperger’s Syndrome, I outlined six pathways. The first was a diagnosis of classic autism in early childhood. The child may have been silent and socially aloof at age three years but due to the benefits of intensive early intervention programs, progresses along the Autism Continuum to the point where the descriptions of Hans Asperger, rather than Leo Kanner, more accurately describe the child’s profile of abilities. [Source: Tony Attwood]
My interest in Asperger’s Syndrome evolved by following the same path as Lorna Wing, namely noticing children who had the classic profile of the silent and aloof child in their pre-school years, subsequently developing fluent speech and intellectual abilities in the normal range. Yet these children still had an unusual profile of social reasoning and linguistic skills and an unusually intense interest in a specific topic. Their profile of abilities was not adequately described by the criteria for autism as described by Leo Kanner but was consistent with the profile described by Hans Asperger. The original assumption was that such children were rare but the benefits of modern intensive early intervention programs means that this is the prognosis for a greater number of children who had classic autistic features when they were very young. [Source: Tony Attwood]

But I guess people haven't really thought about or examined the continuum with what was formerly referred to as Asperger's Syndrome, and non-autistic. And I suspect it might not be as thoroughly examined but rather arbitrarily decided, because the divide is currently used for determining funding, and of course, there are people in autistic circles who are gatekeeping for their own identity politics (see the concerns about "too many" people being diagnosed with autism) rather than wanting an accurate and comprehensive picture of the spectrum of memory retention. (I took the terms "autistic" and "non-autistic" as identity-first language from recommendations for language surrounding people with disability.)

I share this perspective:

Meghan herself, in an op-ed for Elle magazine, wrote of how she has embraced "the grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence". [Source: Stan Grant, ABC]

What I am most frustrated is that Ms. Thunberg is speaking as if she speaks for all autistic people, and that her narrative is subsequently treated as such.

I think if I can resist the siren call of autism being portrayed glowingly, I believe that you can do so too.

Let's try to avoid portraying autism as a kind of exceptional superpower, because the ideas at the heart of that are not so different to the roots of ableism and discrimination.

Let mutual respect return to the fore, instead.

[Updated 01 July 2021]