by Founder Sofia Bianchi
On September 27, 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was poised as ever as she addressed the United Nations in a powerful speech for her crusade for climate-justice. Since her initial solo climate strike outside of the Swedish Parliament in August of 2018, eleven million have joined the famed activist in the streets in school strikes that have been televised worldwide, demanding that emissions be stopped and justice to the planet be served. In spite of her fame and recent media attention, many are surprised to learn that the little hero of our generation credits her global impact to her autism, having referred to her Asperger’s Syndrome as her “superpower”.
This hasn’t come as any surprise to me, however. As a sister to an older brother with Autism Spectrum Disorder who is an alum of the Middletown Township Public School system, throughout my life I have watched with quiet admiration as my brother Giulio has continued to defy the odds, one after another, teaching me that Autism Spectrum Disorder is less of what people call a “disability” and more like something of a miracle.
While it is refreshing for me to observe that we are finally approaching a moment in time in which people like Thunberg who exist on the autism spectrum are both comfortable enough to be publicly open about their condition, and respected in spite of it, the fact is that Autism Spectrum Disorder continues to be misunderstood. Not very long ago, I stood at the other side of my parents’ bedroom door and listened to my mother seething about the parent at back to school night at Middletown High School South who used the word “retard” when referring to my brother, about the mothers who had known Giulio since grade school who would encounter him in the grocery store and dramatically slow down their speech as if he spoke another language. Despite how far we’ve come the word “autism” is still very stigmatized...Why, after so much time, does this stigma persist? And what, after all, is this elusive “spectrum”, and why is it that stories of people with ASD have been told in such polarizing ways? As exciting as it is to see the wonders of Thunberg and others in the tabloids, we cannot assume that every case of ASD looks the same, or on the other hand, dramatically different.
As exciting as it is to see the wonders of Thunberg and others in the tabloids, we cannot assume that every case of ASD looks the same, or on the other hand, dramatically different.
Since the year 1943 when “autism” as we know it today was first discovered by Austrian-American psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner, science has proved that often people on the Spectrum can be brilliant, and that they need not be outcasted or stigmatized as they have been, and often still are. Yet like anything, the success never happens overnight. Autistic savant Daniel Tammet recalls in 2006 memoir Born on a Blue Day how he exhibited the types of early symptoms of ASD which also contribute to the stigmatization that is all too common today, detailing habits of his adolescence including “flap[ing his hands] together” and “talking to [him]self” on the school playground and being mocked and bullied by his peers in spite of it. Yet none of this cancels the fact that he is currently a renowned author, poet, translator, and essayist, and was at one point the world record holder for most recited digits of pi.
Flashforward to 2019, where people with ASD such as Thunberg are now being seen as “superhuman”, and are crediting their autism to their heroic deeds. Luckily, Thunberg is not the only public media figure in recent news to be open about her place on the spectrum, and who is widely respected regardless of this label, as internationally appraised Tazmanian comedian and LGBTQ activist Hannah Gadsby has also recently opened up about her own diagnosis to fans. “I think people can be quite frightened of it, like it’s a pathology, or a restriction,” suggesting it should rather be understood as “a framework, a prism [through which one experiences life]”. Finally, people like Gadsby and Thunberg are coming forward, actively shaking the autism taboo. Yet even they are noticing this pushback.
Disappointingly, eighty years later it is not uncommon to witness the artifacts of this outdated mentality turning up in the media as even people who hold esteemed positions have been the culprits of these misdemeanors in recent cases. For instance, Fox News guest commentator Michael Knowles recently received tremendous backlash for referring to Thunberg as a “mentally ill Swedish child” on national television. However Thunberg’s unshakable maturity struck back when, in a series of tweets, she responded “being different is not an illness and the current, best available science is not opinions – it’s facts,’’ emphasizing the nature of autism as a state of neurodiversity, rather than to be viewed upon in the likes of a mental illness (USA Today). In the same week President Trump mocked Thunberg when, in response to the powerful speech she delivered to the United Nations Climate Summit on September 27th, 2019, he tweeted, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”. Later, Thunberg playfully changed her Twitter bio to “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future”, striking back seamlessly.
What difficulties may come about in more severe cases of ASD that call for creative solutions, and how can we access these solutions without objectifying those affected?
Perhaps it is time to take a break from viewing autism and its symptoms as threats and learn to approach them in the spirit of wonder and curiosity. Instead of turning away, we might begin to ask ourselves: What talents can cases of neurodiversity present which we may be ignoring, simply because we don’t know to look for them and to nurture them? What difficulties may come about in more severe cases of ASD that call for creative solutions, and how can we access these solutions without objectifying those affected? How can we tap the potential of every person with ASD, so that they have the chance to become a hero like Thunberg or Gadsby? Perhaps if the media did a better job of covering stories of people with ASD, we could have the awareness, knowledge, and tools needed to create a world that is more fruitful and accommodating for every mind that occupies it.
Sofia Bianchi is the founder of Ausome and a student at Columbia University.