Here’s Why Some People Think of Autism as a Superpower

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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, in New York. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many people recognize autism as a spectrum disorder, and more often than not it is seen as a negative trait — as a disability or a condition one must deal with if they or a loved one is diagnosed. But recent events and a recent uprising led by an extremely influential, impressive, inspirational and empowering young woman have changed the way people see autism. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old young woman from Sweden (though based on her actions and her incredible poise we’d argue she seems way more mature than 16), is working hard to change the way the world addresses climate change and the measures we take to protect the environment. But in the process of fighting for what she believes in, she is also changing the way people think about autism.

Greta has Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the spectrum disorders that falls under the autistic umbrella. It’s a quality she has never tried to hide or deny, but in light of her recent attempts to challenge the government through her climate activism, some people have attacked Greta, using her “condition” to demoralize her, undermine her, and diminish her mission. 

And she is not having it. No offense to her haters, but Thunberg is a bit too busy trying to save the world and empower an entire generation of activists to worry about what her critics have to say.

In a powerful Instagram post to her 7.4 million followers and fans, Greta said: “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 Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.” 

What makes Greta different is not a handicap or a quality that is holding her back. On the contrary, it is what makes her special, powerful and uniquely qualified to make a difference in this world. It’s her superpower. To understand how autism can actually be a source of power and a gift, rather than a negative condition or a curse, we need to first understand what autism is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. 

What is Autism?

According to Autism Speaks, autism, otherwise known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), “refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” It is fairly common, impacting an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States according to the CDC. The most important thing to know about autism is that it is not a single disease with a single list of symptoms, causes, or treatments. Autism is not a single condition, but rather a collection of disorders that fall on a spectrum, with each case ranging in terms of severity and symptoms. There is no one type of autism but many subtypes, and each subtype comes with its own set of unique challenges and unique strengths.  

Like we said, autism is not a deadly disease that needs to be cured and it’s not a set of traits that need to be hidden or fixed. But it is a condition that makes people different. 

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Autism affects the way that people learn, think and problem-solve. Some people with autism can be significantly challenged intellectually or in terms of their ability to focus or interact socially. But it can also make them extremely skilled and driven. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently, according to Autism Speaks. 

One of the subtypes of autism is called Asperger’s Syndrome, and this is the type of autism that Thunberg has. Technically this syndrome was a previously used diagnosis on the autism spectrum, but in 2013, it became part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).

Generally speaking, Asperger’s Syndrome involves the following challenges:

– Difficulty with social interactions

– Restricted interests

– Desire for sameness

That said, this syndrome also comes with a unique set of strengths, including:

– Remarkable focus and persistence

– Aptitude for recognizing patterns

– Attention to detail

Again, while each unique case of autism is different and there is a wide range of symptoms and obstacles to overcome that can range in severity, each case of autism also brings great talent and individualized gifts. 

How Greta Thunberg’s “Superpower” is Changing the Way People View Autism

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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, in New York. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Thunberg has been making headlines recently for her role in raising awareness about climate change and for her passionate fight to curb the catastrophic effects of an overheating planet. The 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee recently spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit, where she shamed government leaders for failing to protect our planet, and where she urged leaders to take action. Oh, and did we mention that to travel to the UN summit she sailed across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral boat? And just a few days before that iconic speech she inspired millions of people across the world to participate in the biggest climate march in history.

It would be easy to look at Thunberg — a young girl with autism — on paper and assume that she is suffering or struggling in some way. It would be easy to write her off as someone who is different or to assume that she is a disabled girl with behavioral, social or intellectual issues. Greta welcomes that kind of criticism.

While she doesn’t often open up about being autistic, it’s not because she’s ashamed or embarrassed. She commented that she rarely talks about it because people often misunderstand what autism really is. They mistakenly see it as a problem or something to be fixed. 

“I’m not public about my diagnosis to ‘hide’ behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness,’ or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before. Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder,” she wrote. “All of that is gone now, since I have found meaning, in a world that sometimes seems meaningless to so many people.” 

At the end of the day, being autistic doesn’t make someone any less capable of making a difference or any less worthy of being heard. Asperger’s, and other forms of autism, definitely do make a person different. But why would someone assume that different is a bad thing? Greta certainly doesn’t think so.

“Being different is a good thing,” she says. “It’s something we should aspire to be.”

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