So Gretta Thunberg has managed to annoy the hell out of Donald Trump, Jeremy Clarkson, Piers Morgan, US conservatives and lots of petty small minded middle aged keyboard warriors with her simple but stark environmental message.
So what is it about Gretta that’s managed to get under so many collective skins. I’ve a few ideas.
Gretta has spoken openly about being on the Autism Spectrum and refers to it as her superpower. One of the core characteristics of Autism within the diagnostic criteria is experiencing difficulties with Theory of Mind. Theory of mind on a very basic level is the ability to put yourself in the perspective of another, to understand what they might be thinking and feeling. Theory of mind is crucial for everyday social interactions and the traditional view has been that for people on the Autism Spectrum that they have limited theory of mind abilities and so this interferes with typical / successful social interactions.
One phrase I like that differentiates people with Autism from those of us who don’t is to see everyone who doesn’t have Autism as being Neurotypical. I think that there’s a very good argument that can be made that the vastly larger neurotypical population are experiencing greater Theory of Mind difficulties than people with Autism when it comes to understanding Gretta because they cannot stretch their world perspective enough to try and understand how she might see the world from her own and her perspective as a young girl with autism.
Another core characteristic of Autism is having a special interest to a degree that the majority of people usually wouldn’t in a particular topic. For Gretta this has been Climate change since she was 9 years old. We have politicians, social commentators, pundits, social media “experts” labeling her special interest in climate change as being “weird, disturbed, unstable”. When you look at it through an autism lens and take her non neurotypical perspective on it then it makes perfect sense and is not weird or disturbed in any way. Is it not arrogant in the extreme to think that we would have the right to decide what a 16 year old girl should be interested in and if the topic and degree of interest is out of sync with what we think is “acceptable” then we have to label or in some cases condemn it.
This also leads itself into other misconceptions of autism as has resurfaced recently as being a “mental illness”. I’m not sure if this is accidental or willful ignorance by the neuro-typical population but autism is not something that needs to be “cured” because it doesn’t fit with how the majority see the world. Majority views do not always leave you feel content, just look at Brexit and US Presidential elections for a reference point on this. The absolute arrogance and simultaneous ignorance of those who believe that Gretta’s views could only be symptomatic of mental illness speaks volumes about their limited and restrictive understanding of mental health and neuro-diversity.
For a parent of a young person with autism or professional who has worked with someone with autism, what you learn very quickly is you don’t just ask nicely or flick a switch to deflect them away from their special interests. For many their special interests keep them energised, feeling connected to the world and help them feel a sense of empowerment and success. I certainly found over the years that rather than try to curtail or “cure” someone of their special interest, you are far better off in most cases to harness the power behind that interest to give the person a sense of agency, achievement and purpose. Rather than the cynical, conspiratorial and limited perspective espoused by many that Gretta’s campaign is being manipulated by others around her for their own gain, I much prefer to understand this in terms of Occam’s razor . Occam’s razor is a principle from philosophy. Suppose there exists two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the one that requires the least amount of assumptions is usually correct. Or the simple answer is usually the correct one. In this case Gretta’s interest in climate change is a special interest of hers in line with being a young person who has autism. Why does it have to be more complicated that that? Unfortunately simple answers rarely generate newspaper headlines, clicks on social media or media sound bytes.
One of the ways that I’ve tried to explain (granted from my limited neurotypical perspective of autism) autism to a parent after giving a diagnosis has been this. If we as neurotypicals see the world at a 90 degree angle a young person might see it at a 86% angle. Neither 90 or 86 degree is the “right” way to see the world (who has the right to determine that?), it’s neither right nor wrong, just different. It’s not our job to adjust or correct the angle of how a person with autism see’s the world back to 90 degrees but it is our job to try to understand how they see the world and they shades of greyness that can exist between both perspectives.
The above image for me encapsulates why I think Gretta’s campaign has triggered so many powerful people. The success of her campaign on social and mainstream media platforms has forced climate change deniers to at least temporarily discommode themselves and come up for air to try and justify their actions / inaction. I think their rage in part comes from a sense of shame at being (rightfully) called out by a 16 year old girl and has brought to the surface again a cohort who believe that….
I think if this principle is making a comeback then in the interests of fairness then it should apply to a certain cohort of adults too, I’m sure we’re thinking of the same people…..
My final thoughts on the Curious case of Gretta is that for all of those who also happen to have autism that she has proved and hopefully inspired some to see that (despite the vitriol thrown her way) not only is it possible for someone with autism to survive in a nero-typical dominated world it’s also possible to thrive.