Like young people the world over, I was delighted to hear that Greta Thunberg, the youth climate activist, has set sail for New York on a zero-carbon boat. The 16-year-old is making her way across the Atlantic with plans to travel through the US, Canada and Mexico, culminating in an appearance at the annual UN climate change conference in Chile in December.
And though I was shocked at the extent of the vitriol levelled at her as she started her voyage, I was not surprised to see her under attack.
From journalist Sarah Vine, who questioned whether Thunberg’s GQ cover appearance was “a bit….. weird?”, to multi-millionaire Aaron Banks making comments about "freak yachting accidents”, some of the responses to her latest campaigning are simply cruel.
Many have pointed out that she's facing a disproportionate amount of abuse because she's a young woman. That may be part of it, but there's a bigger issue – the fact that she is honest and open about her diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.
As an autistic person, I have had my share of abuse and misunderstanding. Due to a late diagnosis – women generally are diagnosed later than men – I was labelled with taunts such as “flyd” (referring to children born with physical disabilities as a result of the thalidomide scandal) throughout my school years. Later, when I had to disclose having Asperger’s, entitling me to additional support at school, the trope of my "suffering" came into play: according to one of my teachers, people on autistic spectrum were “a bit cold, and a bit weird”.
Finding and retaining employment has a barrel of laughs too. I was fired by text message by one boss who had described himself as an "ally" to autistic people, but who often made ableist comments in front of me while forcing eye contact. Services that are designed to support people like me into employment have said that I am too "high functioning" to qualify, so I am not entitled to help. I have to constantly explain my diagnosis, and justify why I should be given additional support. It just gets so tiring.
Imagine the constant rejection that I and others with a spectrum disorder have been through, but amplified because you're also a global media figure – and all at the age of just 16.
Thunberg is already a leading figure in the climate change movement. If she had been male, she would not have received a fraction of the abuse she's already faced. Add to that her diagnosis of a condition on the spectrum, and it seems she has been declared fair game.
So we've had to hear about Thunberg's reported "obsessions" – a trope a former editor brought up with me when discussing one of my stories, reducing me to tears. And apparently Thunberg is "weird" – but then again, who or what is "normal"?
Autism or Asperger's is not a stick to beat someone with if you disagree with their point of view. It is not a rich source of jokes. Thunberg is doing something incredible; if you want any sort of discourse about that, do it constructively. She may have Asperger's, but that is utterly irrelevant.
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