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.