How Greta Thunberg’s autism helped make her the world’s most important person for 2020

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Greta Thunberg — named person of the year by Time magazine — has shown the world that nothing can interfere with the fulfillment of her mission of climate activism. Not cyberbullying. Not expressions of opposition, some from prominent power players. And perhaps most remarkably, not an autism spectrum diagnosis. In fact, her autism profile is arguably an asset as she sets forth in winning over hearts and minds across the globe.

Asperger’s syndrome, which is Greta’s autism spectrum diagnosis, is frequently accompanied by other disorders. In her case, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is relevant, which likely contributes to her intense and unrelenting focus on speaking truth to power in urging action on climate change. Inspiring what has become a worldwide movement no doubt requires a degree of “thinking outside the box,” a common attribute among folks with Aspie (a more feel-good way of saying Asperger’s) profiles. The decision to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a solar-powered yacht on her way to the United Nations Climate Action Summit is but one example of such thinking.

Repetitive behaviors that are limited in scope, another prevalent trait among those on the autism spectrum, would probably be construed by most as a problem that needs to be fixed. Then again, maybe not, depending on your perspective. Greta uses this aspect of her Aspie profile to her advantage. As is the case with her OCD diagnosis, it arguably helps her allocate her energies only toward what is most important to her: her goals for our planet and its inhabitants. Aside from what she says about climate change and the relatively few words she has shared with the media about her autism profile, we don’t hear much else from her. I’m fine with that. I choose to see a young woman who remains passionately engaged in what she most believes in.

Like Greta, I, too, am an Aspie who often hyperfocuses, obsessively, on what matters most to me, and with solid results. I could not have become proficient at the piano had I not locked myself in practice rooms for hours at a time over many years while studying at music camps and schools. I could have given up early on my almost lifelong struggle at building self-esteem. Instead, I fought through and eventually learned how to love myself. I, too, have endured more than my share of bullying and survived, stronger than before. For both of us, it’s all about turning adversity and struggles into triumphs.

Asperger’s syndrome is widely thought of as a disorder, but this is not how I look at it, and Greta probably feels the same way. Rather, Asperger’s is an integral part of who we are, a way of being that carries unique personality traits, challenges and strengths as well. I praise Greta for being who she is, for not hiding her true self, in spite of knowing she is different and a figure of controversy.

Let the Australian prime minister try to undermine her efforts by publicly stating “more learning and less activism.” Let OPEC call her “the greatest threat to the fossil fuel industry,” to which Greta appropriately replied “thanks.” Let the bully who responded to a video of one of her speeches at the U.N. climate summit state on Twitter that she is “so obviously deeply disturbed.” Greta’s response to this statement: “when haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning … being different is a superpower.” 

The sheer force of Greta’s personality, to which Asperger’s and OCD are integral, has led to several impressive accomplishments that could be construed as epic in light of her age and profile. The president of the European Commission, standing next to her, announced during a speech that hundreds of billions of euros would be spent on climate change mitigation. The scientific community has been paying attention and supporting her. An invitation to speak at a U.N. summit and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination speak for themselves. And perhaps the greatest of all of her feats to date: Being the single most inspirational voice behind the recent global climate strike, with millions of young people and older like-minded folks supporting them, joining her in solidarity, taking a stand for what they believe in and against a very real and shared fear.

Greta’s successes, when considered within the context of her Asperger’s profile, shed light on the importance of accepting neurodiversity as a significant and meaningful aspect of our social fabric. We acknowledge diversity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, skin color and political affiliation, among others. Why not neurology? Let’s view folks like Greta Thunberg and countless others whose brains are wired a little differently as people with unique abilities and challenges, rather than as people with a disability or a disorder.

Many folks with Asperger’s, not just Greta and me, function at a high level and are successful doctors, attorneys, CEOs, fine and performing artists and celebrities. Daryl Hannah and Dan Aykroyd are among them. Others suspected of having had Asperger’s based on what is known about their personalities and how they conducted themselves include Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Marilyn Monroe, Isaac Newton, Beethoven and Mozart, to name just a few. 

What a beautiful and special young woman Greta is. She is arguably a force of nature. Perhaps you can agree, even if you don’t agree with her platform? Either way, take a stand for what you believe in, no matter what may stand in your way.

Sam Farmer wears many hats, among them father, husband, musician, computer consultant and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s syndrome, he writes blogs, records coaching videos and presents at conferences and support groups for the Asperger/Autism Network. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.

A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers.

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