By Clare Nimura
One day in August of 2018, a ninth grade girl decided to skip classes for two weeks to protest the lack of legislation protecting the climate. Just seven months later, over a million students from more than 125 countries walked out to join her, creating a movement called the Global Climate Strike for Future. Six more months and the movement has grown to over seven million strong, comprised of activists across all generations, not just school-aged children. This girl is Greta Thunberg. Over the course of a year, she has become a household name for her incredible feat of global activism. Why, then, do some call her “a joke,” “a puppet,” or “creepy”?
This harsh public condescension and doubt of Greta and her campaign stems mainly from the characteristics that set her apart: her young age and her outspokenness about her Asperger Syndrome. In an old Twitter profile, she described herself as a “16 year old climate and environmental activist with Asperger’s.”
The fact that Greta is a child is astonishing, but not groundbreaking. She is not the first young activist to earn a place in the global news—think of Malala Yousafzai or the students who organized the March for Our Lives demonstrations. Greta’s Asperger Syndrome makes her stand out; she calls it her “superpower.” In addition to pushing for legislation to protect the global environment, she is breaking down the stigma around developmental disorders: there is nothing “wrong” with her.
Asperger Syndrome (AS), or Asperger’s, is a milder autism spectrum disorder. It is a developmental condition characterized by difficulties interpreting nonverbal cues and navigating social interactions, as well as restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors. Children with Asperger’s have “normal” speech and cognitive skills and may just appear like a neurotypical child behaving differently. The lives of many adults with Asperger’s very closely resemble those of the average adult. Though the precise causes of autism spectrum disorder are yet unknown, they are thought to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors that influence brain development.
In her TEDTalk in February of 2019, Greta recounts the time she first learned about climate change, and how confounded she was by the lack of urgency about the issue. Her singular fixation on climate change led to her diagnosis:
“To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal. So when I was 11, I became ill. I fell into depression, I stopped talking, and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight. Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary—now is one of those moments.”
Greta is a natural orator and is known for her piercing economy of language and her unshakable poise. “On climate change, we have to acknowledge that we have failed,” she says. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act as you would if the house was on fire. Because it is.” These are not the words anyone wants to hear; no one wants a child to blatantly state the truth that they have been avoiding. But maybe Greta’s direct, unmistakable message is what the world needs right now.
Contrary to the criticism aimed at her, her passion is genuine and her expertise is real. The argument that she is “handicapped,” first as a child, and second as a person with Asperger’s, is moot. Her young age gives her a more unadulterated perspective, and her Asperger’s makes her inclined to dedicate herself fully to her cause.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “The most distinguishing symptom of AS is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.” Greta has become an expert on climate change in a way that the average 16-year-old could not. She says herself, “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 this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.”
Asperger syndrome is like a lens that focuses Greta’s attention on a singular topic. Her perspective is a different voice in the debate, just like that of any other activist, politician, or leader. As Greta has risen to world fame, she has begun to shift the public perception of Asperger’s from something that is a disease and a negative to a different, though equally valuable, way to approach the world. Headlines focus not on the fact that Greta has Asperger syndrome, but on the merit of her climate policies and her role as a youth activist: “Greta Thunberg’s Unforgettable Message,” “Greta Thunberg’s Climate Panic Has Our Attention. Now What?” Greta has proven that she is just as capable as any other person. When she takes the microphone at a rally or at the UN Climate Change Summit, people stare because of her all-consuming passion for helping the environment, not because of her condition that makes her different.
When I went to see Greta in an interview in New York City this September, she was asked what she thinks of all the hateful messages she receives that criticize her campaign, discredit her words, and occasionally ridicule her lack of ease in certain social situations. She paused, then with a half-smirk, admitted, “I don’t know how many laugh attacks I’ve had just watching these tweets and some nights I have a competition with myself to find the most absurd.” To Greta, these comments simply do not matter—what matters is that we have thrown the environment into a downward spiral and it needs our help now. She set out with a mission to save the climate, and is inadvertently changing the dialogue on developmental disorders, too.