Why society needs the autism-fueled superpowers of Greta Thunberg

By Dr. Chris DeBernard
Clinical Advisor, Nano

When Swedish-born Greta Thunberg was eight years old, she became enraged at the global climate crisis. Last year, at the age of 15, she went on a three-week hunger strike, standing alone on the steps of Stockholm’s parliament building with a hand-painted protest sign. Since then, due to her rhetoric (and skillful social media tactics) Thunberg has galvanized over 4 million young people in 150 countries to join her climate activism. 

There’s no stopping her. Today, TIME Magazine named her 2019’s “Person of the Year.” 

In September, after hitching a ride across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions yacht with very rudimentary amenities, Thunberg gave a no-holds-barred speech to the United Nations.  

“How dare you,” she said, shaming world leaders who have ignored the scientific evidence of climate change. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” 

While the vast majority hail Thunberg as a modern hero, she has drawn the misogynist and patronizing anger of the Establishment. They have belittled Thunberg for both her youth, and gender, but the greatest hate has been directed at her atypical mind. 

Greta Thunberg lives with Asperger’s, and is on the autism spectrum. This manifests in her staccato speech patterns, lack of awareness (or adherence to) social codes, or what is “acceptable behavior”, and an extremely dogmatic attention to detail. But Thunberg has not only dismissed the attempts to undermine her, she says autism is her “Superpower.” 

As a clinician for many years, treating patients with varying mental health issues, I agree with her. 

I’d go further – I think she’s a shining example of what neurodivergent people are capable of. I believe society needs to reassess its judgement of people like her, and understand the benefits and strength inherent in being different. What a demonstrable triumph over her diagnosis she has displayed, and I know she’s given hope to many parents. Before Thunberg, parents in my clinical practice said they felt an autism diagnosis was a crushing blow. Their hopes for a child’s “normal life” dashed before it even started.

What is autism?

According to the National Institutes of Health, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): “Is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.”

Its cause is still unknown, although researchers suggest there is a genetic causal link, together with influences from the environment. Other risk factors include: having a sibling with ASD; having older parents; certain genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Rett syndrome; and/or very low birth weight. It’s worth noting there is also emerging evidence that the gut microbiome may be involved.

Much is still open for interpretation in terms of diagnosing the disease in patients. Work done by the American Psychiatric Association, for the latest revision to its diagnostic criteria manual (DSM-5), states that every diagnosis in the DSM-5 requires the presence of some form of impairment. To note: “Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning (Autism Spectrum Disorder, Criterion D).” Without it, there can be no disorder. 

Adding to the confusion, in recent years the American Medical Association has debated how we label those with autism and other modes of behavior on the spectrum: “Autism spectrum disorder has a relatively short history as a recognized diagnosis,” the AMA points out. “But sparks strong debate over whether it is an illness or a feature of neurodiversity.” 

Medical debate aside, Greta Thunberg has entirely rejected her diagnosis as a “problem” and created a swell of support (#aspiepower and #AutisticsForGreta). Single-handedly she’s dispelling the stigma around mental health issues amongst young people.

Autism as a superpower

As a psychiatrist, I welcome this generational shift. I know from my own patients that mental health diagnoses can come with unexpected upsides. While many people remain guarded about their diagnoses, rightly afraid of being the target of attacks, we are increasingly aware of celebrities, moguls, and influencers sharing their experiences. 

For example, Bill Gross, co-founder of PIMCO, credits much of his success as an investor to the increased focus and enhanced understanding of complex systems associated with his autism spectrum diagnosis. John Nash, the subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), overcame schizophrenia to win the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work with game theory. Bipolar disorder, while associated with devastating lows, and even suicide, is also associated with a demonstrable increase in creativity and drive. 

Celebrities like Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears have all publicly disclosed their struggles, documented their diagnoses, and shared their recovery stories. Many of us take stimulants of various forms to feel more driven, or encourage creativity, and require less sleep. How lucky – like those above – to be able to do it naturally.

Rather than view these people as “afflicted”, I would say that all these artists’ and thinkers’ work is not only informed, but shaped by their atypical brains, and they have risen above whatever limitations it places on their ability to function in everyday life.

What’s normal? 

I believe, through the example of young people like Greta Thunberg, we will recategorize how we view mental health, illness, and all the points in between. After all, what is “normal”? And who gets to decide? In “The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity”, the American Medical Association addressed the myth of a “neurotypical brain”:

“Search as you might, there is no brain that has been pickled in a jar in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum or the National Institute of Health or elsewhere in the world that represents the standard to which all other human brains must be compared,” the authors wrote. “Given that this is the case, how do we decide whether any individual human brain or mind is abnormal or normal?”

I would argue that Greta Thunberg’s wonderfully neurodivergent brain is the source of her success – as it is to many people in the performing arts, and in Silicon Valley – and we must celebrate them. 

“[Asperger’s] makes you different; that makes you think differently,” says Thunberg. “Especially in such a big crisis like [climate change], we need to think outside the box, we need to think outside our current system, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else.”