Greta Thunberg was alone when she started striking against climate change. Sitting against the stone exterior of the Swedish Parliament building, the 15-year-old skipped school to bring attention to the severity of global warming. A year later, she galvanized 1.5 million teenagers in 100 countries to walk out of school in protest with her.
Greta’s speeches on the environment are no-bullshit, stern, and stirring, all byproducts of her autism identity – a fact that she hasn’t shied away from. “It makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box,” she said in a BBC interview. “I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike, for instance.”
Her admission of autism comes at a time when the tone is shifting around neurodiversity – a movement that celebrates neurological differences like autism and ADHD as natural variations in the human genome, rather than shun them as deficits. When Courtney Love was growing up in the ’70s, autism was marked as a terrible impairment, a disorder that traps kids into their own world, unable to connect and socialize. Courtney was 9 when a doctor recognized autistic traits in her, after showing difficulties with socializing and schoolwork, as discussed in her biography, Courtney Love The Real Story by, by Poppy Z. Brite. But unlike Greta, she came to fame in the ‘90s when there were no stories by autistic people. Courtney’s unruly, loud, sexual, status breaking behavior was never labeled as autistic, nor accepted by the public.
While the ability for Greta’s to embrace her autistic traits shows progress, the perception of the spectrum is still stuck in Courtney’s time. Many parents search for signs of autism in their children with fear and dread, as if they were looking for a terminal illness. Researchers study autistic people like rats in a cage, focusing more on what causes the differences in behavior rather than looking into how to rebuild a world where autistic traits are accommodated and valued.
Greta and Courtney are vastly different people but they both broke boundaries that allowed for necessary change. Greta’s refusal to stay silent while big corporations flooded the planet with chemicals from mining and drilling led Britain to sign a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions into law. Whereas, Courtney’s refusal to fade into a neat feminine role carved a space for women to be loud, sexual, and messy. Despite their different messages, they both show us the potential of autism when traits are channeled, how people on the spectrum have a unique way of perceiving the world that can challenge norms and push society into a better place.
When a woman in a support group for ADHD suggested that I look into autism when I mentioned that I tend to get obsessed with topics for days, I was shocked and defensive. Like Courtney, I was a stripper, a casual drug user, and loud. My mind reeled back to my college freshman Psychology class when the teacher introduced a PowerPoint slide on autism. My friend leaned over to my desk and whispered, “I’d rather die than have an autistic kid – those kids don’t know how to love you back.” I shuddered thinking of the memory – autism was an awkward boy’s disorder, something alien, a product of vaccines gone wrong. How could that be me?
But despite my chatty exterior, I was depressed from micro-analyzing everything I said. I processed the world slowly – sounds, conversations, and my emotions took time to build meaning in my brain. To accommodate the speed of conversation, I learned to mimic phrases and facial expressions. I came off normal enough, but it took its toll on me. I was bone-tired and afraid that if I said something inappropriate and offended someone they would hate me. I spent more time figuring out how to hide myself than figuring out who I was.
In 2018, Kieran Rose created the hashtag #TakeTheMaskOff to bring awareness to the fact that a lot of autistic people work very hard to hide their traits. Masking, which they described as the “constant suppression of one’s autistic self,” in The Mighty, is harmful to autistic people, as well as to society who are deprived of the unique ways people on the spectrum see and hear the world.
During my childhood, I was described as intense and serious. I cried a lot, got excited easily, and was riled by any site of injustice. I pored over research on the Native American genocides and the transatlantic slave trade in middle school and hated that my suburbian life was dotted with shopping and strip malls. But I learned to keep these feelings to myself. My family called me the ‘fun sucker’ if I complained and laughed when I got upset at any sign of mistreatment.
When I sought out a formal diagnosis, the psychologist who diagnosed me recommended the Felicity House – a community space for autistic women in Manhattan. I accepted that I was autistic at that point but I wasn’t exactly unmasking as Kieran Rose suggested. I still analyzed everything I said, still tried to dampen the reservoir of feelings inside me, still pretended that I wasn’t autistic, still depressed.
During a writing group at the Felicity House, we worked on a prompt and were then asked if we wanted to share. Before we started writing, many of the women stuttered or spoke at awkward rhythms, something that made me cringe because I was afraid that I sounded that way. But when each volunteered to share, they spoke clearly about pain, trauma, genocide, and violence. I was so stunned that my eyes welled with tears. My whole life I’ve felt so alone in the magnitude of my feelings, and here I was, reflected in so many of my autistic peers. I wasn’t damaged for feeling so much. I wasn’t broken. I was autistic.
The cultural benefits of autistic perception are what Erin Manning discussed in her book Always More Than One. She quotes Anne Corwin who explains that neurotypicals (non-autistic people) perceive by categorizing, through ‘chunking’, whereas autistic people experience layers of stimuli at once, as if you were watching two television sets at the same time. “Autistic perception,” she explains in the LA Review Of Books, “Troubles categories, feeling-seeing the world coming into itself.”
This break in categorical perception reveals the political potential of neurodivergence. Autistic people have a very strong sense of justice and distrust hierarchical structures that grant people authority over others without reasonable explanations. Parliamentary leaders told Greta to go back to school, but why should she listen to them when they’re not listening to the damning science backing climate change? I understand this feeling too – why do I have to be nice to my boss when he treats everyone like shit? Similarly, back in 2005, when everyone was terrified of Harvey Weinstein’s power, Courtney Love was asked if she had any advice for young girls moving to Hollywood. She hesitated at first, “I’ll get libeled if I say it.” But she continued, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons [hotel] don’t go.”
This refusal to blindly accept authority makes it very difficult to survive in our capitalist society that requires obedience to keep a job. a colossal 85% of autistic grads are unemployed, a statistic that’s often explained from lack of acceptance and job suitability. But if an identity of people cannot stay hired, then perhaps it has to do with the way autistic people interact with power at work, with a system of production that distributes wealth to a privileged few off the backs of so many.
We can do it, you know. We can live in a world where resources and power are spread evenly among people. We can live without violence. We can live in a kinder, greener world. And autistic people can show us how.