It’s hard not to watch Greta Thunberg speak without being overcome by two things; the first – and strongest – is admiration, and the second is envy.
I don’t envy her the criticism she has had levelled at her. I don’t envy her the comments made by those who have no clue whatsoever about autism. I don’t envy her having her weirdness and normalities constantly examined and measured. What I envy is her self-knowledge and the support of her family.
When I was an autistic teenager I had no idea who I was. I remember the unwavering strength of my convictions. I remember hearing about animal cruelty and being overcome with empathy and a need to stop it. I remember spending hours walking down an abandoned railway track undoing each and every snare-trap I could find, because I couldn’t bear the thought of one rabbit suffering.
I remember my parents telling me that no issues were as black and white as I was making them, and that there would be negative consequences for me if I went through the world with this chip on my shoulder.
I hate the term ‘chip on my shoulder’; I always picture a soggy, cold, greasy chip, balanced awkwardly on my tensed, lopsided body. I worry it will get in my hair and smear me with its chilled repellence (for my American readers, you’d have to picture a thick fry as for some reason you call crisps, chips and chips, fries – ah, the joys of communication).
I remember the frustration at older people; how they accepted things that they should be striving to change, how they couldn’t see how much better things could be if we just decided to make them better. I was told I was young, naive, idealistic, and that I would understand when I was older.
Well, here I am. I turn forty next year, and you know what? I still believe the world can be a better place. I made the mistake of learning not to state exactly what should change. I went down a gentle route of treating people well and believing in them.
I believe we can all do better, but I know that we don’t have time for social niceties now. What we need is truth and clarity, and that is where Greta’s teenaged enthusiasm has done what I could not.
I have spent too much time learning to curb my natural methods of communication, Greta is herself. I cannot imagine how overwhelmed she must feel at times, but the passion of an autistic interest is energising and contagious. There is no mendacity in her, there is no delicacy or coyness, there is only meaning and truth.
At a time when the political sphere rewards those who play games and those who lie, she is a beacon of honesty. When others see her as attention-seeking or a pawn in a bigger game they reveal their own motivations, not hers. For all my learning to fit in, you could not have persuaded me, as an autistic teen or now, to say anything I did not believe.
It is thought by many that autistic people fear change, but in my experience the only change people fear is the change that they don’t feel in control of.
Greta fears that climate change is beyond her control, because it requires action by large corporations and countries as well as individuals. The establishment fears Greta because she will not bow to their demands and is unwavering in her message; they cannot control her.
Autistic people are powerful catalysts in social change because of their focus and passion. It saddens me that I blunted my sword on learning to fit in and keep quiet, when I should have been honing its edge on facing injustice.
Greta Thunberg is the autistic hero that I needed then, and that I need now. Honesty and the truth doesn’t disappear when people lie, it just means we need a bigger voice to cut through them. A clearer voice, a voice that skips the social niceties. An autistic voice.