I don’t recall where I first saw her name, but I started following Greta Thunberg on social media a few months ago, when she was “just” a 16-year old Swedish, autistic climate activist whose solo protests had begun to spawn a worldwide movement. Within the last few weeks, she has come crashing onto the world stage, sailing across the Atlantic to speak at the UN and in Washington, DC, and to raise her voice to an ever-growing audience. There is so much that we can learn from her.
Greta Thunberg is teaching us about the value of neuro-diversity.
When an Australian columnist mocked Thunberg’s diagnosis of Asperger’s this past July, Thunberg tweeted in response, “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning! I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”
This notion that – given an accommodating environment and an accessible society – autism can be a strength, is in line with the neurodiversity movement, which is based upon the belief that diversity within a population is healthy for the societal ecosystem. Thunberg is a prime example of such diversity, and though she is only 16, our ecosystem is benefiting from her tremendously already.
Greta Thunberg is teaching us about prejudice.
Thunberg’s presence on the world stage has not been uniformly embraced. A recent guest on Fox News opined, “If it were about science it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international Left.” This followed comments by Fox’s own commentator, Laura Ingraham, who expressed her belief that Thunberg’s true goal is for us to “cede control of our economy, our way of life, our way of transport, how many children you want to have, and if we don’t go along, we will be punished by our own children.”
She also, by the way, compared Thunberg and her contemporaries to the characters in Stephen King’s horror story Children of the Corn. The use of mental illness as a derogatory term is offensive to all who experience mental-health issues. Referring to Thunberg in this way is an overt attempt to minimize her significance and the significance of her statements.
President Donald Trump himself, in response to Thunberg’s inspirational speech at the UN earlier this week, appeared to mock her, retweeting the video and writing, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Thunberg responded by embracing the description and editing her Twitter bio, which now reads, “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Unfortunate reactions and climate activism aside, I hope we can all look at Greta Thunberg and learn from her. She is teaching us about the power of youth, the power of conviction, and about the power of diversity.
The writer is assistant professor of clinical child psychology and special education at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also associate director and a founder of the Autism Center and chair of the special education graduate division.