For people with Asperger's, a role model emerges in Greta Thunberg

Published: Sep. 25, 2019 at 6:40 AM CDT
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Alexander Burke was in high school when he received an explanation for his lifetime of difficulty making social connections. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Burke, now 34, felt he had a better understanding of the interpersonal struggles that he had had in his past — but it did nothing to alleviate his worries about his future.

Burke says he would have been "thrilled" to have someone else with Asperger's whom he could look up to. But there weren't many other people with Asperger's that he knew of, either personally or in the public sphere.

That has since changed. In the past year, as teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg has launched an international movement to address climate change, the 16-year-old from Sweden has notched another accomplishment, say those on the autism spectrum. By being open about her own diagnosis of Asperger's — even calling it her "superpower" — Thunberg has emerged as a role model to those on the spectrum, and has educated others about what autism can look like.

"I think it is really inspirational," Burke, of Somerville, Massachusetts, said. "I would have been thrilled if I was in high school right now."

Thunberg — who gave an impassioned plea at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday that went viral — began her climate protest in August 2018 following Sweden's hottest summer on record by striking by herself outside Swedish Parliament instead of going to school.

Since then, her campaign has gone global, attracting throngs of supporters as well as critics, some of whom have seized upon her Asperger's as an "illness."

That has not stopped her. Last month, she tweeted: "When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning! I have Asperger's and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower. #aspiepower"

That message is meaningful for Collier Litel, 23, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, who found out in seventh grade that he had Asperger's.

"It means a lot that she's willingly embraced Asperger's syndrome and talks about it openly," said Litel, who graduated college in May and is now studying to take the LSATs. "It creates a lot of awareness and destroys some stigma."

"She's doing a lot to not only show people with Asperger's that they can be very powerful and effective in their own lives, but to show other people that the autism spectrum isn't something that's completely debilitating," he added.

Like Burke, Litel said he wished he had someone like Thunberg as a role model when he was growing up.

"I think it would have had a tremendous impact on what I viewed as possible not only for myself, but for cultivating relationships around me."

Asperger's was once its own diagnosis but now falls under the broad category of autism spectrum disorders, which are characterized by differences in social skills and speech and may involve repetitive behaviors.

Thunberg has attributed her passion about climate change in part to her unique neurological makeup, while also acknowledging that Asperger's has posed social challenges to her in the past.

Her transparency is beneficial to those in and outside of the Asperger's community, said Erica Remi, director of development for the Asperger/Autism Network, which helps those who have been diagnosed live meaningful lives and promotes awareness.

"I think she's a role model to everyone. But I think for somebody who has Asperger's or is on the autism spectrum, her ability to be honest and disclose it in such an empowering way is what's inspirational," Remi said. "Greta is disclosing it in a way that she's proud of."

For Burke, who also works for the Asperger/Autism Network as a development assistant helping with fundraising, seeing Thunberg stand up for her beliefs before the United Nations "is really thrilling."

While Burke's own diagnosis did not feel like a superpower — "for me, it was more of a roadblock than a stepping stone" — he appreciates that Thunberg is challenging preconceived notions of what Asperger's looks like.

"I'm proud to count her in our ranks," he said.