Like many people, I am fascinated with Greta Thunberg’s meteoric rise. For me, her appeal is not to do with her environmental campaign: it’s because she is a well-known figure on the autistic spectrum. Like Greta, I have Asperger Syndrome. I was diagnosed when I was a young teenager in 2002, before Greta was born.
While I admit that I have mixed feelings about Greta Thunberg, I find the hatred she engenders disturbing. Some of Thunberg’s detractors on social media say she is ‘mentally unstable’, ‘used by others’ and ‘fragile’. This taps into the dangerous stereotype that people with her condition are incapable of being autonomous individuals who can make their own decisions. Everyone on the autistic spectrum is different and many people with autism live with mental-health challenges. Greta is not that extraordinary if you know people on the spectrum. Most people on the autistic spectrum have issues such as sensory overload or trouble communicating certain emotions. It’s perhaps a good thing that because of Greta people are less inclined to make ‘Rain man’ generalisations.
On the other hand, I find the cult surrounding Greta quite nauseating. She is treated like a mascot. And Greta herself is probably doing some damage to her cause. First of all, she is very dogmatic in her approach and her rather sour preaching is not a good way to win over those who aren’t converted to your cause. As the old saying goes, ‘you catch more bees with honey than vinegar.’ I think Greta is turning off people who are not 100 per cent responsive to her message and who are not completely converted to her cause. Then of course there is the double-standards of her publicity stunts: yes she crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat to reduce carbon emissions, but of course the crew returned by a carbon-spewing commercial aircraft.
I’m happy that an Asperger’s sufferer is getting so much attention. But I fear that, instead of saving the planet, in the end Greta will be dismissed as just another eccentric teenager who has weird passions, as I did at her age.