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.
YES YES YES. I needed this today, so thank you. It’s so helpful to be reminded that being “intense” can a blessing. Also for anyone here who suspects they may be on the spectrum, “Knowing Why” is a great book of essays by some cool people who were diagnosed as adults. There’s a lot of gender diversity represented there and a good essay on blackness and neurodiversity.
I just read this article on Nueroclastic (a really cool website curating writing by autistic people), and it really hit home for me. It touches on a lot of the things mentioned here, and I found it so relatable I was moaning through the whole thing.
I’m not diagnosed but have strong suspicions. Excited to check out that book!
I’ve been hoping for an article like this ever since I started reading Autostraddle a couple years ago- thank you SO much!!!
Intense, serious, and riled by any site of injustice – yesss.
Being told by adults that my seriousness was “funny”, because I was a child, was in fact one of the riling injustices…
So glad to see this on Autostraddle, thanks for sharing! As someone who has been searching out information on autism and content from autistic adults (especially those who were diagnosed later in life) online for almost a year but hasn’t been brave enough to talk to anyone about it, this hit me in the gut. Womxn and queer people so often experience and present autism differently from the “geeky boy” stereotype that it was a shock to realize how strongly I and others experience many of the lesser talked-about traits.
I relate to this so much! I am also undiagnosed, but relate hard to the “lesser known” traits, and I have been hyperfixating on learning about Autism from an inside perspective for weeks, lol. I recently found the website Neuroclastic that curates writing autistic people, and I love it. The following article in particular hits on some of the same issues written about here.
My gorgeous gf is on the autism spectrum, so I love getting to read this content!
She definitely has a passion for justice (maaaaybe intensified since she’s a Libra lol).
One thing that was coming to mind is how much I value how great her communication is – she’s always very clear about how she feels. The only times I’ve wondered about how she’s feeling I’ve realized are because she’s intently focused on something, and I’ve made assumptions based on my type of neural processing that are incorrect. And then when I’ve talked about it with her, she’s been so clear and straightforward. It makes me think about how assumptions from neurotypical people must impact those who are neurodivergent.
Thank you again for this post!
I loved this article! Thank you so much!
I’ve in a path of self discovery for the last year or two in therapy. During one of the sessions my therapist asked me if I’ve ever considered being in the spectrum. I hadn’t but so many things about me made sense when I saw myself under that light (I kinda got obsessed over it). I’m almost 30 and until now I feel like I can finally stop pretending/acting to fit in. I’m letting myself be.
Again thank you so much for this! It really resonated with me.
Thank you so much for this, love to see more neurodiversity here! Your writing is beautiful and resonant.
Hey thanks, this comes at a time where I’m feeling like I have to defend all of my reactions to things as if it’s somehow shameful to feel :/ It’s nice to see all this articulated so clearly, thanks for a good read.
Thank you for this!
Wonderful writing here and elsewhere on the internet!
Love, love, LOVE this piece and hope to see more #ActuallyAutistic content on Autostraddle! (Also, hi, long-time reader, first time commenter.) Being Autistic and navigating/realising/understanding one’s own place in the world, particularly as it relates to gender and sexuality, has been (and I’m sure will continue to be) a long, strange trip. In many ways I feel like I’m often ‘last to know’ about many aspects of myself/my self, but the resistance to authority and the desire for justice you speak to here has always been front and centre. (Also: how cool is Erin Manning??)
I cannot believe i missed this article back when it was published!!! maybe it’s better that way, maybe I wouldn’t have seen, if i’d seen it, been able to handle the wake up call. This 100% resonates me, could’a written that paragraph about suburbia and being the fun killer myself. and since id’ing as autistic this summer, i have been thinking so hard on this power aspect of autism, and potential for solidarity with indigenous sovereignty that settlers and/or white autistic ppl could build through what you’ve talked about here.
oh lol i missed this cuz i think this was the day before or after WHO declared a global pandemic. yeah, def would not have been able to handle.