Perhaps you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg.
I was a little surprised to hear that her most popular tweet of the last thirty days went like this:
“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 Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower. #aspiepower”
That tweet earned 772,000+ likes! That’s more than double any of her other tweets, and I’m including her posting her speeches to the United Nations and much more.
If Greta Thunberg wants to avow “Aspie power,” well, more power to her. I don’t see my kid’s autism as any kind of superpower.
Liberals and conservatives, I want to show you the way that people argue in the autistic community. People in the autistic community, I want to show you the way that liberals and conservatives argue. All sides could use a little dose of cold water from a perspective they’re not accustomed to.
Basically, that Simon and Garfunkel lyric still holds up fifty years after they wrote it: “still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
My liberal and conservative friends are each accusing the other of “using” Greta Thunberg. Neither is wrong: for liberals she’s used as a hobbyhorse, for conservatives, she’s used as a punching bag.
As a liberal, I believe it’s rather counter-productive to accuse (most of) my conservative friends of child abuse. I think all of us should be able to debate Greta’s points without saying “if you disagree with her, you’re beating up a kid.” Take a breath and then take her as seriously as you would your favorite niece.
Let me show you a little post that has been going around in the wake of Greta’s sudden fame. I’m going to leave out the author’s name as a courtesy:
Apparently this needs to be said out loud: AUTISM IS NOT A MENTAL HEALTH ILLNESS. If you are someone who has yet to come to terms with the scientific facts about the climate crisis and want to slam Greta Thunberg because she is boldly speaking truth to power, you need to check yourself on several counts:
The climate crisis is real. The science is overwhelming and pretending it isn’t doesn’t change facts.
Autism is not a mental health illness. People on the spectrum aren’t mentally ill or unstable. In fact, most people on the spectrum are truth-tellers and seekers of facts. They tend to not be persuaded by anything that can’t be scientifically proven, which can cause challenges in social communication and understanding social relationships because our social worlds are nuanced and confusing, but are strengths in terms of understanding science.
In case you don’t know, there is this longstanding battle between Autism Speaks and the Autism Self Advocacy Network. Autism Speaks tends to use language that suggests that autism is a condition that needs to be ameliorated or “treated,” a bit like a disease. The Autism Self Advocacy Network tends to reject that language and insist that autism be treated much more like handedness or eye color.
Services are at stake. Stigmatization is at stake. Especially after December 2012, when some people blamed autism for the vile actions of that idiot in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (I refuse to say his name).
I believe that anyone and everyone is invested in the idea that a disability could somehow turn into a superpower. Like the comic character Daredevil, whose blindness heightened his other senses to the point where he could parkour all over New York. Like Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) in Rain Man, whose autism proves profitable in Vegas. Like urban legend around Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley types, who have supposedly converted their over-focus and intensity into tools that make our lives easier. Like Helen Keller, maybe, whose deaf-mute-blind status perhaps informed her tremendous perspective on the world and her empathy and work for all sorts of disenfranchised people.
As the parent of a disabled kid, I get it. It would be so nice if these lemons could also manifest as lemonade. On a simpler level, I don’t want all my parenting, all my nights of reading to him, to be just efforts down a black hole
But…I still don’t appreciate the language in that little meme, especially the categorical “People on the spectrum aren’t mentally ill or unstable.” If it said “Many people on the spectrum aren’t mentally ill or unstable,” that would be different. But my child is mentally ill and unstable. And he’s on the spectrum. And knowing the kids at my kid’s school, I believe some of them probably fall into such a definition as well. So this qualifies as erasure. And I don’t like my child being erased.
Do liberals lionize girls like Malala Yousefzai, Emma Gonzalez, and Greta Thunberg partly because they’re “bulletproof vests” against conservative criticism? As a liberal, I’m happy to own that. I would also love it if conservatives consider owning their decades-long practice of message-ignoring while messenger-sliming. If every response to every point Bill Clinton ever made is to say “but look at what a douche Clinton is!”, yeah, your opposition is going to evolve toward people who are harder to personally attack.
One thing I personally love about Greta Thunberg is that she’s not choosing sides in any of these battles. She doesn’t call herself liberal or conservative. I’m sure that both Autism Speaks and the Autism Self Advocacy Network have approached her. I’m thrilled she hasn’t made some kind of statement one way or the other. I like that she said “given the right circumstances.” She’s more equivocal on this point than most of her users.
Let’s take a breath, with whatever air is left in our atmosphere. Let’s try not to deploy Greta Thunberg one way or the other. Can we just listen to her?
I saw Greta Thunberg summarizing much of what experts like David Wallace-Wells wrote in” The Uninhabitable Earth,” especially when it comes to questioning this fantasy of endless economic growth. And we should question that fantasy. We should stop pretending we know everything, and start being open to learning and doing new things.
In just one speech to the United Nations, I believe Greta Thunberg probably said more than my son will in his lifetime. So…I’ll end on an idea of transference. Listen to Greta as though you were hearing all of what one person will ever say.