Autism as superpower: Ode to the Gretas and Stellas

Ableist people insist that Greta Thunberg is a puppet. If you ask me, after I catch my breath lost from laughing, it’s not possible. Not rooted in reality.

It’s also deeply insulting and misguided to assume a lack of agency in this bright and courageous girl.

The doubters haven’t the faintest hint of a clue about the nature of autism or Aspies in particular. Right off the bat, I’m reminded of a not-uncommon autistic profile that includes strong aversion to external direction, demands and certainly outright commands, from others. There is an innate drive for autonomy at all times. “Aut” being the key syllable.

And by pure coincidence, I’m sure, a memory just played out in my mind, in which toddler Stella repeatedly grabs her coat to leave during our mommy-and-me-type music class.

We should all know by now that each person with autism is unique. The level of diversity is such that autistic people can be more different from each other than from neurotypical people. Yet there are some traits that show up again and again.

Here are just five commonly seen autistic traits that can be real advantages. And within them are clear reasons that the haters are wrong about Greta.

1 – Just the facts: Truth-seeking mindset

Autistic people are less affected by cognitive biases than their neurotypical counterparts. Able to disregard how information is presented or regarded and weigh the factual merits, some autistic people show innate talent in cutting through the noise and honing in on the truth. Peer pressure holds little to no sway, which is handy in situations where unwarranted hysteria or complacency sets in.

We see this in Greta, with her laser-like focus on the science and tireless, repeated insistence that our leaders act on it. She doesn’t get lost in conjecture. When challenged, she asks the contrarians to present their own carbon budget, their own data. But they don’t do that, because they are not basing their pushback on scientific truths.

As people retreat into ideological bubbles, cognitive biases run rampant. More than ever, we need people like Greta to keep us honest.

2 – Passion fueled: A powerful drive to learn 

Autistic people frequently immerse themselves fully into topics they love, areas of passionate interest, which can become the root of unparalleled skills, knowledge or creative expression. Traditionally framed as pathology, with terms like “obsessions” and “fixations,” these wells of expertise can be drawn upon for inspiration and education of others.

Obviously, Greta’s activism springs from passion, not puppetry. That’s why millions follow in her footsteps. To her credit, instead of simply giving in to despair over the grim outlook we face, she plunged into the science and worked to understand the crisis and proposed solutions.

As Barry M. Prizant explains in Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, for neurotypical and autistic people alike, a strong interest “feeds a basic neurological need to be engaged, to appreciate beauty, and to experience positive emotion.” Before her activism, Greta rarely left home and had no motivation. Her strong interest, in climate change and environmental protection, connected her with her purpose and gave her new life.

Screenshot 2019-09-25 10.55.20

I’ve seen embarrassingly shallow and ignorant questions asked in response to Greta’s speeches and posts. Questions that could be thoroughly answered by a quick Google search. I’m glad there are minds like Greta’s to hold us to a higher standard.

3 – Sharp perception: Faster paths to solutions

Autistic people may have a perceptual upper hand. In a study by the University of Montreal and Harvard University, autistic and neurotypical individuals were asked to complete patterns in the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM), to measure “hypothesis-testing, problem-solving and learning skills.”

Per the study’s lead author, “Some critics argued that autistics would be unable to complete the RSPM because of its complexity, yet our study shows autistics complete it as efficiently and have a more highly developed perception than non-autistics.”

Despite the complexity of climate science, Greta is able to process, synthesize and develop clear conclusions. Though, she still consults with experts to ensure accuracy. Because she’s a #baller.

4 – No nonsense: Direct communication

In a world full of bullshit, sharp, clarifying voices are incredibly valuable. Perhaps that’s why, more and more, the direct communication style associated with autism is being recognized as a strength in the workplace, given the proper fit. You may not want this quality in, say, a customer service rep. But you probably would benefit from it in the mechanic who spots an issue in the airplane you’re about to board.

Greta doesn’t mince words. She is as crystal clear as it gets. Yet, clouded by ideology or anger or whatever it is that causes grown adults to toss insults at a teenager who wants to save the planet, neurotypical people read into her words for the hidden meaning or agenda. There is none. That’s not how autistic minds work.

5 – On point: Detail-oriented precision 

Research, led by Simon Baron-Cohen, suggests that excellent attention to detail is part of the cognitive style of autism. While, through the lens of disorder, emphasis is placed on social and other information missed by autistic people, it’s important to recognize that they often glean highly specific information overlooked by others.

Not only does Greta get to the point, she includes salient details and references that directly support her communication, presenting her concerns with solidity and clarity that are sorely lacking in the greater public conversation about the climate crisis.

Greta is living, breathing proof of the need for neurodiversity in leadership. I’m so proud of her, and Stella, for being who they are. I hope that more and more people realize that by being unapologetically themselves, neurodivergent people can live more vibrant lives while teaching those around them and contributing immense value to society as whole.

(I didn’t like that damn music class, anyway. Thanks, Stella.)

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