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Greta Thunberg and Autism: Making the Most of Your Differences

January 16, 2024

In 2003, a girl named Greta Thunberg was born in Sweden. When that girl was eight years old, she first learned about the very real threat of global warming; a threat humans had caused with their own hands.

Autistic Greta Thunberg

At the same time, she was assured those hands could work to fix it. If we just turned off lights to save energy, if we recycled our plastic bottles and paper, if we made a concerted effort to change the world’s way of living, our future could be saved. But people’s actions were not consistent with these words.

There were no effective restrictions, no preventative measures, no productive discussions to counteract the threat. She watched as her world leaders imperiled everyone’s future again and again by acting as though no emergency existed, and to her, it became clear: without any true follow-through, the hopeful calls to action she’d been hearing for years were little more than lies.

At age 11, Greta Thunberg fell ill. She stopped eating, stopped talking. She was deeply depressed. Thunberg could not understand why what she saw as “the most important issue of all” was patently ignored by those with the power to address it.

Later, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism, which gave some of her views on the climate crisis more context. In her own words, “for those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white.” She could not reconcile the contradictions of a gray or compromising approach to climate change, and it showed in her symptoms.

Greta’s reaction to the state of affairs regarding climate change affected many aspects of her life. Unable to sit back and do nothing, she insisted her family lower their carbon footprint by becoming vegan, installing solar panels, and giving up on flying. She does not fly anywhere despite her invitations to and involvement in international events, and her mother sacrificed her career as an international opera singer to stand against the negative climate effects of aviation.

Both women’s public renouncement of flying added fuel to the recent anti-flight movement known as flygskam, or “flight shame,” which has resulted in a noticeable spike in Swedish rail travel.

Since Thunberg caught the attention of the public, she has been very open with her diagnoses and attributes much of her determination to being on the autism spectrum, a diagnosis she views as a gift that helped open her eyes to the climate crisis. In an interview on The Today Programme, she stated, “I don’t think I would have become interested in the climate at all if I had been like everyone else.”

She believes it enables her to see through lies and direct her as a messenger of change because it allows her to perceive the world differently. She has also made a point of her selective mutism being the first step towards understanding the power of and need for speech: “I only speak when I think it’s necessary—now is one of those moments.”

And speak she has. After experiencing the hottest Swedish summer since records began 262 years ago and unimpressed with Sweden’s legislation despite its position as the most sustainable country in the world, Thunberg decided the speaking was up to her. No one else was doing anything; not even her fellow youths could be persuaded to take an interest. Fifteen years old, alone, and just starting 9th grade, Greta went on strike the most effective way she knew: refusing to go to school.

Taking inspiration from American student activists striking for gun control after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Thunberg decided to not attend school until the 2018 Swedish general election. She felt there was no point in going when facts didn’t matter anymore, and politicians weren’t listening to the scientists.

Instead, she spent every day during school hours sitting quietly outside the Riksdag for three weeks with a sign saying “Skolstrejk för klimatet,” or school strike for the climate. She also handed out leaflets saying, “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” She demanded the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

Greta Thunberg and autismAfter the election, Greta continued protesting on Fridays, inspiring school students across the world to take part in student strikes. Having gained some notoriety and social media following over the school year, she was able to organize an international school strike for the climate. On March 15th, 2019, an estimated 1.4 million students from 112 countries walked out of their classrooms for a day, demanding stronger action and policies to address climate change. Thunberg continues to use social media to implore politicians to take steps towards halting carbon emissions.

From a profound speech at TEDxStockholm in 2018 to addressing members of parliament and EU officials in 2019, Greta Thunberg has used her story and unflinching persistence to carry her message in a dizzying number of high profile speeches, all of which gained much media attention. Eleven of her most famous speeches have been published as a collection in the book No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. She has earned multiple awards, met the Pope, and even been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, of which she would become the youngest recipient ever if won.

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Throughout it all, she has held firm to her personal promise to do everything she can for her cause, including using her differences to her advantage. “To be different is not a weakness. It’s a strength in many ways, because you stand out from the crowd,” she said. Greta Thunberg is carving out her own path, and nothing is going to stop her.

Photos courtesy of Anders Hellberg

This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow

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