I initially paid only scant attention to the news about Greta Thunberg. I knew she was a ‘climate activist,’ that she is 16 years old, and that she sailed on a yacht to get to the United States to minimize the carbon footprint she used to get here. My only comments at the time were how big a carbon footprint did making that yacht create and how is she getting home since they flew over here and collected the yacht and took it back? I also read a statement by her and her family that she had Asperger’s syndrome. I had not seen any video of Ms. Thunberg prior to her visit to the U.N., just still photos.
My interest in Ms. Thunberg changed the other day when I saw the video of her making a statement about global warming at the U.N. I am very private on the internet, especially on Twitter (I am anonymous for a myriad of reasons). However, seeing Ms. Thunberg’s emotional state prompted me to take a risk. I have a child with Asperger’s syndrome. What I saw and heard from Ms. Thunberg struck home sharply because I could see and hear her frustration (which I will explain below) and related anger from a perspective that had nothing to do with the climate. I also read some characterizations of Ms. Thunberg both from people who believe in the immediate urgency of global warming and from those who do not. I realized that neither of these camps seemed to recognize the Asperger’s that I, as a parent of a Spectrum child, saw right away. People lionized her on the one side and vilified her on the other, and both sides commented on her “look.” Neither seemed to see her as I did.
I do not know the Thunberg family, the “handlers,” or the organizations that support them. I am neither a doctor nor a psychologist. What I am is the parent of an Asperger’s child, one who has been informed by wonderful professionals on the subject, read extensively on it, and actively participated in the Asperger’s world for years. Based on this hard-won knowledge, I wanted everyone involved in the Greta Thunberg circus, regardless of position, to get a glimpse into her reaction and her expressions based on my reasonable knowledge and observation of her as a person.
What is Asperger’s syndrome? Until relatively recently it was its own disorder. However, a few years ago, the DSM (DSM-5, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (2013)) melded Asperger’s into the category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Autism Spectrum is basically a four-fold chart with one axis running from high functioning to low functioning and the other axis running from high intelligence to low intelligence. I believe most Asperger’s people fall into the high functioning category. Asperger’s is characterized by a series of observable factors, not all of which each Asperger’s person experiences, and there is variation in the degree that each is affected. Some of the indicators include: 1) tactile issues 2) auditory issues, especially echoes, 3) difficulty transitioning from one task or event to another, 4) hyper focus on narrow subjects, 5) inability to make eye contact, 6) difficulty reading people’s emotions and emotional cues, 7) monotone speech, and 8) rule following. There are others that may exist depending on the individual, but the two that seem to be fairly universal are literalism and rigidity of thought. This rigidity of thought is more than being stubborn. It is receiving facts, and those facts are tattooed on your brain. Those facts are facts, even in the face of direct, contrary evidence, and those facts are more than mere stubbornly held opinions. This rigidity is closely tied with rule following and the expectations that others will follow those rules. The literalism means you literally follow the literal rules.
Unlike a disease such as diabetes, Asperger’s is an observable condition. Ms. Thunberg’s anger, tears, frustration, and facial expressions (or lack thereof) and her inability to keep her eyes focused are instantly recognizable as Asperger’s related. So, in the hope of providing some understanding of what this young lady was presenting to the world, I drafted a thread for Twitter that included a summary of Asperger’s (the forum is not amenable to great detail) with the following observations about Ms. Thunberg’s UN video. The following is the cleaned up version of that thread:
As Ms. Thunberg suffers from Asperger’s, she likely experiences rigidity of thought and literalism, along with hyperfocus. The hyperfocus is why Asperger’s was known as the “little professors’ disease.” Especially children could become experts in narrow subjects, even at an early age. The expertise is not a creative expertise, but a rote one. Causation and emotional understanding are difficult for Asperger’s sufferers, especially children.
Asperger’s sufferers are also very strict adherents to “the rules,” once those rules are established in their minds. This adherence ties to the rigidity of thought. If a person with Asperger’s establishes a set of “facts” in their minds, it is extremely fixed. It is so fixed that even contrary facts presented to them are rejected in favor of the previously established “facts.” If the counter information continues, the sufferer becomes frustrated. The frustration turns to anger, because of the literalism, rigidity, and the way their minds attach to rules and items that they have already established is concrete. The concrete fact is often the first “fact” on the subject they hear.
Now imagine a person with these predisposed inclinations hearing for the first time: 1) the Earth’s atmosphere is heating an incredible pace; 2) humans are causing this rapid heating; 3) the whole planet is going to die if it is not fixed in 12 years. These three items, for persons not on the Spectrum, can be weighed, evaluated, and put into perspective. Contrary points can be reviewed and expectations adjusted. For the Asperger’s sufferer, this is not easily achieved, if it can be at all. The anxiety compounds. You have the anxiety of being told you are going to die coupled with the anxiety and frustration of having contrary facts running against your established “facts” and literal implications.
Parents of children with Asperger’s struggle against this convergence every day. How does one teach perspective and thought flexibility to a person whose mind demands literalism and structured “facts” (incidentally, this is why some Spectrum people are great coders). The answer is patiently doing so. Demonstrating the safety of exceptions to rules and the reasons for alternatives. When I see Ms. Thunberg, I see all of the frustration of my child with none of the attempted perspective and flexibility of thought. In some ways, Spectrum people appear robotic because of their very rigid mindset, but they are not. They are frustrated, hurt, and angry. For a person like me, seeing her rigidity makes me unhappy. However, seeing her frustration and tears at the UN makes me angry. Those pushing her into the spotlight on these issues deserve shame. She is not a robot. Her beliefs are tainted by the Spectrum that frames them. She is being compelled into corners her mind has difficulty navigating and that only feed her fears (of literal death), and the frustration that her mind’s eye does not square with the messy, grey, emotional world. Asperger’s sufferers must learn to navigate these areas. These areas are instinctive for those of us not on Spectrum. No matter where you are on this issue of global warming, remember Ms. Thunberg’s view is not your view. Someone should be helping her navigate her rigidity and anxiety, not using her as an “automata” prop.
The thread already had 14 parts, so that’s where I stopped. I could not go into the fact that her frustration was compounded by her lack of understanding of why other people did not behave in a way that matched her iron-clad certainty that she was going to die along with the whole world in 12 years. Can those involved not comprehend the sheer terror caused by having that thought burned into one’s conscience? I also did not have the characters to explain that for many the compulsion I was describing was not just of others behavior, but of her own thoughts seeing her world and her fear being confronted not just by the arguments of people who disagree but a whole world not conforming to her viewpoint of a dire emergency.
Finally, I was greatly affected by the reaction to her appearance. Rather than beatification and vilification of her face, I saw a young lady who I know has to or had to learn to laugh. Please consider this for a moment. One of the most instinctive and greatest joys of being alive is the ability to laugh. Can you imagine the heartbreak for a parent discovering that their child does not do this, even though they may find something funny or joyous?
Ms. Thunberg’s face, when she does break a rare smile is beautiful. Not because she is “standing up” for (or being stood up for) anything, but because I know what effort and education went into her showing that emotion. I experienced this with my own child who has learned to laugh, in a somewhat rote way, and even tells jokes (many of them in a shotgun approach to humor).
As people with Asperger’s mature, they tend to learn more and more about navigating the greys and messy emotions of the world. My great hope is that Ms. Thunberg finds this path and that those surrounding her start helping her to learn these waters so she can find joy.
Bear Shrugged/Ursa Major Wit.
P.S. - The thread and this article resulting from it merely scratch the surface of the world of Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorder. There are so many components to Asperger’s that I have not touched upon, several of which emerged from reactions to the thread. I wanted to give some awareness to the issue. Thank you to whomever at Twitchy posted the whole thing. So many people were genuine in appreciation of learning even a little bit about Asperger’s, and a number of people with Asperger’s confirmed and appreciated my description.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.