Autistic Future
September 2nd, 2019

Greta Thunberg and Ableism

Gre­ta Thun­berg has been in the news late­ly. With no fac­tu­al basis for oppos­ing her ideas, her crit­ics have tak­en to attack­ing her per­son­al­ly. Adults are spend­ing their time insult­ing a teenag­er for express­ing con­cern about the over­whelm­ing sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus on cli­mate change. The way she is crit­i­cized is dis­turb­ing, often allud­ing to her gen­der as well as her age. Most notably, these ad hominem attacks relate to her dis­abil­i­ty or man­ner­isms prob­a­bly stem­ming from it. Some sug­gest that what she has to say should be dis­re­gard­ed because of her autism. Oth­ers say that she can­not pos­si­bly under­stand and freely choose her activism because of her dis­abil­i­ty. Both of these con­clu­sions are unsup­port­ed by evi­dence and inher­ent­ly ableist.

See­ing neu­rotyp­i­cals treat Thun­berg as an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor because of her dis­abil­i­ty does­n’t sur­prise Autis­tic adults who have fol­lowed her sto­ry. Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion is doubt­ed, what­ev­er its form. What we say is often ques­tioned, and there are too many neu­rotyp­i­cals who tend to dis­be­lieve us even when there is strong evi­dence that what we are say­ing is true. For Autis­tics who are not world famous activists, this can mean get­ting ignored when we try to express our needs or say that we are suf­fer­ing. The prob­lem is at its worst for peo­ple who are unable to pass as neu­rotyp­i­cal, have intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ties, or both. This atti­tude per­pet­u­ates abuse and neglect. It keeps our rates of sex­u­al assault much high­er than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion’s by let­ting preda­tors go free even when Autis­tics try to report them. It short­ens our lives when our attempts to get help with med­ical con­cerns are ignored. Thun­berg is repeat­ing the con­sen­sus of almost all sci­en­tists study­ing cli­mate change. Her autism does not affect the truth of the facts to which she directs the world’s atten­tion. To sug­gest that it does is noth­ing more than ableism.

The assump­tion that she has some­how been forced or manip­u­lat­ed into what she is say­ing is ableism, too. Evi­dence has­n’t emerged sug­gest­ing that any­one is forc­ing her cli­mate activism. While Thun­berg appears to be a ner­vous pub­lic speak­er, the only obvi­ous expla­na­tion for what she is doing is that she wants to be doing it. These kinds of rumors don’t gen­er­al­ly cir­cu­late about pub­lic fig­ures with­out dis­abil­i­ties. It is hard to imag­ine them cir­cu­lat­ing about Thun­berg if she were neu­rotyp­i­cal. Despite our gen­er­a­tions-long strug­gle for basic rights, courage and activism aren’t qual­i­ties the pub­lic asso­ciates with Autis­tics and oth­ers with dis­abil­i­ties. The accept­able nar­ra­tives for us are still being good-natured objects of pity or becom­ing “inspi­ra­tional” by “over­com­ing our dis­abil­i­ties” and “man­ag­ing to live nor­mal lives.” Lead­er­ship, promi­nence, play­ing to our strengths, and acknowl­edg­ing autism’s role in our suc­cess are the oppo­site of what most peo­ple expect of us. The assump­tion that small lives, below aver­age in qual­i­ty and con­tri­bu­tion to the wider world, are the only option for most of us is ableism. The some neu­rotyp­i­cals treat Gre­ta Thun­berg isn’t a mean­ing­ful state­ment on the val­ue her work and mes­sage. Instead, it speaks vol­umes on the prej­u­dice Autis­tic peo­ple face.